Meet the start-up which argues better audience engagement can improve your bottom line, as well as your content

First published on TheMediaBriefing.

Engagement is major media buzzword in 2016. Globally, many publishers are beginning to recognize that the chase for clicks, has overtaken a former fundamental business maxim; the need to reduce churn.

As a result, we’re seeing companies begin to shift their emphasis away from uniques to a more nuanced set of metrics, one which places an increasing importance on the need to develop relationships with your existing audience.

This approach matters to publishers, because in an era of subscriptions, membership models and valuable user data, fly-bys are much less likely to be converted into future sources of revenue. In contrast, existing users — ones with an affinity for your brand — should be easier to convert to more loyal (and often paying) consumers.

Recognition of this is a key driver behind the renewed emphasis on engagement manifest among many publishers. But it’s not the only potential outcome.

A one-sided relationship

“The word “engagement” to me feels like another way of saying “people give a shit and you can tell,”” argues Jennifer Brandel CEO and co-founder of the start-up Hearken.

The company attracted some attention earlier in the year after attracting $700,000 in seed funding for a its audience engagement platform, which places a key emphasis on community-driven reporting. Hearken’s philosophy — as manifest in their Twtter bio is — “listen to your audiences first, not last.”

“I sometimes think about the word “engagement” in news as it compares to “engagement” in romantic relationships,” Brandel suggests.

“And in that sense, newsrooms are basically using saying: “Hey, by the way, we’re getting married, we’ve picked out the space, the meals, the flowers and made the invites, please show up at the wedding we’ve made for you” and then measuring the people who say yes.”

Brandel warms to this theme, telling TheMediaBriefing that by adopting this one-sided approach, then media companies are failing to “build their future hand in hand with their audiences.”

Why this matters

“If newsrooms aren’t listening to their audiences,” Brandel explains, “then it’s unlikely they’re making the products their target audiences really need and find relevant.”

“Who wants to be in a relationship like that, long term?” she asks. “I certainly don’t.” And in an era of unprecedented choice for news and information, many media consumers are likely to agree with her.

The impact of this, Brandel feels, is that many media companies are not being as effective as they could be. Too often, she says, we see “one-size-fits-all pieces that don’t actually fit anyone.”

As a result, she notes:

“Newsrooms create stories [that] they think serve audiences, but they don’t know if they’re right until it’s too late and they’ve already made the investment. And that means a lot of money and time sunk on stories that don’t necessarily resonate with, help, or serve people.”

A new approach

Hearken’s model aims to redress these risks and inefficiencies, by encouraging the public to work alongside journalists in setting the editorial agenda as well as working in tandem as the story develops.

As Brandel puts it: “Hearken is a framework for audience-first reporting and engagement. We help media makers better understand the information gaps of their audiences and provide tools and techniques to help fill those needs.”

This approach requires a shift in mindset for many media companies, particularly those for whom user testing and design thinking are fairly alien concepts, and Hearken has also developed a technological framework to help guide organizations through this process.

“Our technology is just one part of our services and with it newsrooms can collect audience questions, validate audience interest in stories (prior to reporting) and manage it all in a centralized location (as opposed to scattered throughout social media feeds and buried in individual inboxes).”


“Our technology also helps newsrooms generate email leads for their newsletters, membership, etc.” Brandel told us; areas which can all have a direct impact on the bottom line.

“One newsroom, WBEZ in Chicago, reported back that of the thousands of emails cultivated through our process and technology, 56% of them were new and not already in their databases. This is a pretty stunning percentage, and very important for nonprofit newsrooms who are funded in part on donations or memberships.”

More widely, she also notes that newsrooms deploying the Hearken-method have also been able to find advertisers or underwriters for community-driven content, due to Hearken’s focus on community participation resonating with their brand.

Globally, Hearken is working with close to 50 newsrooms in 7 countries and 6 languages, and Brandel tells us each outlet has consistently found “that the stories created with our model and technology significantly outperform their average stories on measure of pageviews, uniques, time on page as well as on social shares.”

“Newsrooms of course vary in how this kind of popular content impacts their bottom line but it’s hard to argue that better-performing content isn’t a great thing.”

Looking ahead

“Right now we’re still in phase one,” Brandel says, “[we’re] just trying to help as many newsrooms as we can to adopt an audience-first framework in addition to the traditional model and figuring out how to best support newsrooms of various types and sizes.”

“What we are proposing and proving out in the newsrooms using Hearken, is that shifts in the power dynamics and roles between publisher and audience can change, and that tweaking these dynamics, even slightly, can be incredibly productive.”

Ultimately, Brandel says, “we’d like to eventually see our model power far more of a newsroom’s content. My personal goal would be that a quarter of all stories a newsroom creates actually start with and meaningfully involve the audience, but we know that’ll take a while.”

Achieving these ambitions requires a shift in mindset within some media organizations, as well potential technological solutions which make it easier to interact with “the people formerly known as the audience.”

For Hearken, part of this next iteration includes creating “an interactive reporter’s notebook, in which newsrooms and audiences can better connect during the course of reporting.”

As Brandel observes:

“The way reporting works now, so much of what a reporter collects on any given story ends up on the cutting room floor. We believe newsrooms can maximize their investment by packaging and sharing some of that information with the people who are most interested. There just isn’t a space for that on most news sites or even social media… We’re building that space and framework and will be testing it with our partners.”

Final thoughts

Hearken’s model is clearly looking to test a number of potential outcomes and approaches which many outlets will be interested in.

If the tools they’re developing can lead to increased engagement — both through improved retention of existing consumers and the recruiting of new audiences — then no doubt more publishers will seek to deploy their model.

Doing this can pay editorial and financial dividends; converting communities who might otherwise shy away from your product, as well as ensuring that existing constituents are better served. In the process, this may also help to rebuilt trust between publishers and audiences, drive news/media literacy, and tap into great stories which might otherwise go untold.

Moreover, the potential for value addeds — such as the creation and sharing of content which otherwise might not see the light of day — potentially affords opportunities for additional monetization, as well as a great means to deepen relationships between media companies and their consumers.

As Jennifer Brandel reminds us, “good relationships and engagement starts with listening, and not only to numbers.”

Damian Radcliffe (@damianradcliffe) is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and a former guest editor of TheMediaBriefing.

Originally published at


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