Know your audience. Invest in the content people truly value. Grow by targeting similar areas of interest and unmet needs.
Publishers hear this sort of advice all the time — and there is clearly merit to it. Understanding and delivering the right pieces to the right individuals in the right ways is at the heart of an effective content strategy: it is what attracts new visitors, powers deeper engagement, and encourages loyalty/subscriptions.
But what does knowing and targeting audiences really mean? What does it look like when new approaches are taken to connect with specific groups?
To help make these ideas less abstract, we've pulled together these four recent examples of smart audience targeting that every publisher can learn from:
- South China Morning Post: Inkstone
What It Is: Inkstone is a spinoff site launched by The South China Morning Post. Its tagline is "Translating China" and it focuses on explaining/covering Chinese politics, business, and related areas for people who are not well-versed in these topics.
The Backstory: The South China Morning Post (SCMP), which is based in Hong Kong, has long been one of the preeminent English-language media organizations covering China. When the publication began distributing its content more widely on digital channels it found that it was unexpectedly reaching a fresh audience beyond its traditional readership.
As Gary Liu, CEO of SCMP, explained: "Because of our commitment to distributed media models, we are seeing younger populations that are globally curious, who do not fit into the diplomats-academics-business elite.”
SCMP has invested heavily in Inkstone — the site has a dedicated editorial and product staff — in order to target this new audience of globally-curious younger readers who want know more about what's happening in China.
What Publishers Can Learn: Targeting isn't just about better serving your traditional audiences. By keeping a close watch on which Audience Interests, Content pieces and topics are resonating across channels, it's possible to identify valuable groups which you may previously have not been intentionally engaging.
- Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Facebook Content
What It Is: Over the past year The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has shifted its Facebook strategy, moving from merely posting existing pieces to developing content specifically for social media and following a well-thought-out publishing schedule.
The Backstory: Like many publishers, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel knew the value of social media but hadn't utilized it to its full potential. Last year, the organization found itself at a crossroads and decided to dive in fully.
As Emily Ristow, the Social Media Editor, put it: "Unfortunately, social had been put on the back burner the past few years as we struggled to adjust to taking on more digital responsibilities with a shrinking staff. How could we get back on track with social media and really take advantage of using platforms to find new audiences? We decided to start with our flagship Facebook page."
Thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation, the organization was able to develop a robust new Facebook strategy.
The changes started with approaching social scheduling with the same rigor that it had previously approached print publishing: posts were slotted at half-hour intervals, each desk was held responsible for posts, and top pieces were held for the most valuable times (which tended to be evenings on weekdays).
The second step was developing content specifically for Facebook. This included pieces such as a popular feature which used emoji reactions to poll audiences on where "Up North" began in Wisconsin.
The new approach was highly successful: weekly reach on Facebook jumped from 500,000 people to more than 3 million. This, at a time when traffic from Facebook to digital news publishers has been on the slide following the social media platform’s algorithm updates earlier this year.
What Publishers Can Learn: Audience targeting includes channel targeting: to succeed across platforms entails thoroughly understanding users' unique behaviors/preferences and developing tailored content approaches to meet these needs on each traffic channel.
- The Wall Street Journal: Newsletters
What It Is: Over the past year The Wall Street Journal reworked its roster of newsletters. The publisher reduced the number of offerings, added content that is dynamically updated, included direct contact information for its staff, and shifted the focus to audience engagement as well as encouraging subscriptions.
The Backstory: Over the years the Journal had steadily added more and more newsletters until the total had ballooned into an unmanageable 126. Moreover, there was no clear understanding internally of what was/wasn't working and whether the pieces were resonating with audiences.
The publisher decided to completely revamp its strategy, focusing on streamlining the number of newsletters and better serving audience needs.
As Annemarie Dooling, Audience Development Lead, put it: "Because newsletters were an afterthought when I got here, there wasn’t really a system for what we were doing with [the metrics related to them] — they were all being thrown at editors, engineers, everyone. I would look at the list and figure out: If these people aren’t clicking what are they doing with newsletter and what can we give them?"
Ultimately the publisher whittled down the number of newsletters to 40 and began to utilize a sophisticated dynamic scoring system to deliver the experience to each individual that was most likely to encourage subscription and/or engagement.
The Journal also incorporated elements that audiences wanted, such as including market data updated in real-time and the email address of relevant journalists.
What Publishers Can Learn: Better audience targeting doesn't necessarily mean adding more and more content. In fact, The Wall Street Journal improved its strategy by publishing fewer newsletters. It has been able to improve engagement by utilizing publisher analytics data effectively and ensuring that what's in each message is in line with readers' needs.
- Treasure Coast Newspapers: Indian River Lagoon
What It Is: Indian River Lagoon is a content franchise from Scripps’ Treasure Coast Newspapers that covers various issues affecting southeast Florida. Pieces in the collection are centered around three bodies of water that significantly impact the area in many ways. The tagline for the offering is: "County lines divide the Treasure Coast, but Our Indian River Lagoon unites us."
The Backstory: When the Treasure Coast Newspapers shifted to an online subscription model it faced the same challenge as many other publishers: with limited resources it needed to create new content that was compelling enough to encourage people to pay.
The organization decided that the best bet was to go deep rather than broad: it needed to develop a few key content franchises that concentrated on the areas its audiences most cared about.
As Mike Canan, Managing Editor at one of the papers, put it: “We can’t do everything. We have go to all in at these franchise issues at a high level … We weren’t sacrificing standards, but changing the vision of what success is. Once we established this, there was an ah-hah moment."
But what exactly were the franchise opportunities? Which topics did audiences care most about?
To find out, the organization surveyed 800 readers and formed a nine-person committee of journalists. Each member was responsible for interviewing ten members of the community one-on-one — not about the paper, but about which areas they cared most about. Its from this research that the Indian River Lagoon franchise was born.
What Publishers Can Learn: Understanding audience interests is at the heart of good targeting. Often this comes through the smart analysis and use of data — as in the cases of The South China Morning Post, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and The Wall Street Journal. Sometimes though, as in the case of the Indian River Lagoon content, audience targeting can start with simply asking people what they want.