Five reasons why engagement is so hot right now

First published by TheMediaBriefing.

Will engagement continue to be the media buzzword of 2017? Newsrooms, agencies and publishers are all bandying the term about. But what does it mean? And why does it matter?

Here’s five key reasons why engagement is currently the industry mot du jour.

1. Scale is so 2015: we’ve moved on

The digital arms race meant that, for a long-time, many media companies obsessed over their top-line numbers. It’s easy to see why. These figures were frequently eye-catching, especially to shareholders and advertisers, but at the same time, they also risked being fairly meaningless.

With traffic records being smashed on a seemingly monthly basis — part of an unstoppable growth trajectory being regularly reported by many media organisations — it was clear that at some point we would need to hit the reset button.

Questions around ad fraud, the sustainability of these levels of dynamic digital growth, and the continued challenge of getting accurate audience metrics from platforms like Facebook, merely accentuated this inevitability.

As a result, we’ve seen a rebellion against the race to the top (or the bottom, depending on your point of view), with a recognition that we need a more nuanced way to measure success.

In 2017, great pageviews and uniques are no longer enough.

2. Metric nirvana = new ways to measure success

It’s against this backdrop, that a December 2015 survey of 130 leading editors, CEOs and digital leaders from 25 countries by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism revealed:

“54% said deepening online engagement was a top priority… and 76% said it was extremely important to improve the use of data in newsrooms.”

Making better use of data, rather than simply gathering more of it, makes sense. Afterall, newsrooms — and other media outlets — now have access to phenomenal amounts of data. According to Elinor Shields, Head of Audience Engagement for BBC News:

“There’s no shortage of data and insight. If anything, there’s almost too much.”

Much of this has been made possible by the rise of sophisticated programmes such as Chartbeat, Spike and When coupled with Google Analytics, sentiment analysis software, data from third party platforms and other audience insight tools, there’s no doubt that publishers know more about their consumers than ever before.

Given this, a key challenge for many organisations involves making sense of what they have, and then determining what to do with it. In many cases, this can then be used to inform wider strategic goals like deepening online engagement.

The level of data that we now have access to is helping to change audience/publisher paradigm, meaning that we’re increasingly better equipped to define — and measure — engagement.

Consequently, a broader range of digital success metrics are starting to become more commonplace, with new or added weighting be applied to engagement metrics such as: returning visitors, time on site, open and completion rates, as well as reach among influencers.

3. Engagement data can drive creativity and publishing

Information about/from audiences is also progressively being used to inform and craft content.

Engagement efforts in many cases are now data — rather than intuition — driven.

For publishers, data is helping maxmise impact by determining where material sits on a site, what time it goes live, which headlines get used and ensuring longevity for content once it’s online. Using these methods can make it easier to deliver your new digital success metrics.

And this model doesn’t just work for the web. An audience-insight driven approach is becoming more prevalent across the creative industries. Much of Netflix’s successful $100m punt on the US remake of House of Cards, for example, was data driven.

By capturing a wide range of audience behaviours, Netflix can give audiences what they want, even if they don’t know they want it. As the New York Times explained back in 2013:

“Netflix, which has 27 million subscribers in the nation and 33 million worldwide, ran the numbers. It already knew that a healthy share had streamed the work of Mr. Fincher, the director of “The Social Network,” from beginning to end. And films featuring Mr. Spacey had always done well, as had the British version of “House of Cards.” With those three circles of interest, Netflix was able to find a Venn diagram intersection that suggested that buying the series would be a very good bet on original programming.”

“The spooky part about that?” asked the NYT’s David Carr. “Executives at the company knew it would be a hit before anyone shouted “action.””

4. It may help the bottom line

Television remains an expensive business, so it’s no wonder that companies continue to use engagement data — alongside other audience insights — to help them place their bets. The global audience for House of Cards, and the role it played in establishing Netflix as a quality content creator, and not just a distributor, no doubt helped Netflix to grow its subscriber base.

“Netflix’s unique “big data” capabilities,” Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhard noted in Salon, means the company has “redefined the boundary rules for choosing television programming.” It will be interesting to see whether other media companies will be able to follow suit.

For newspapers, where the industry dynamics remain challenging, online engagement — and the desire to increase it — has a very clear business imperative. This is particularly important if your online business model is predominately driven by subscriptions (like the New York Times) and memberships (The Guardian), rather than digital advertising.

However, the size of this challenge for the newspaper industry was laid bare by Pew last year. When looking at the US market, they found:

“…far more people report reading a newspaper in print than on a digital device. Why this discrepancy? One clue lies in the time spent. The average visit to The New York Times’ website and associated apps in January 2015 lasted only 4.6 minutes — and this was the highest of the top 25.

Thus, most online newspaper visitors are “flybys,” arriving perhaps through a link on a social networking site or sent in an email, and so may not think of this experience as “reading a newspaper” but simply browsing an article online.”

The differences between the analogue and digital user experience, as described here by Pew, neatly encapsulates the challenge faced by many legacy publishers. As audiences become increasingly brand agnostic (or brand unaware), and willingness to pay stagnates, a more engaged media experience is essential if consumers are ever going to value — and thus pay — for digital content.

5. Unlocking content opportunities

New tools and approaches to storytelling may help in this endeavor; and publishers are exploring new ways to engage with new — and existing — audiences, in a bid to drive loyalty, stickability and create new revenue opportunities.

Examples we’ve seen develop in the past few years include: approaches like Hearken which aims to help publishers reach underserved communities, experimental storytelling through VR/AR, as well as new platforms such as Snapchat Discover and Facebook Live, and a doubling-down of activity in more traditional areas like podcasts, newsletters and events.

Each of these tools and outlet offer opportunities for creativity and enhanced engagement, but they also open up new prospects for revenue too.

Harnessing many of these vehicles can require a shift in practice for publishers and content producers. As Sharon Chan, Deputy Managing Editor, Audience and Initiatives at The Seattle Times, told me late last year:

“For a long time journalists had the luxury of just getting published and then running away and then letting their stories go out into the wild and fend for themselves. What we found in the work we’ve done, especially around education, is that if you take some level of responsibility for creating an engaged community…whether it’s online mechanisms or through in-person events…your journalism can actually have a much broader and deeper impact.”

For a legacy newspaper like The Seattle Times, delivering “engagement” and “impact” is important not just because it enables you to stand out from the crowd; it’s also part of what Chan describes as “building that deeper relationship with people and showing that there’s value to having a newspaper, a legacy newspaper.”

Moving forward

The long-term viability of many media outlets will be dependent on finding new ways to engage with audiences. This will come in the form of new formats, payment models and distribution channels, as publishers seek to reassert and reaffirm their relevance in a digital age.

Alongside these drivers, discussions around engagement also need to be seen — particularly in the journalistic arena — through the lens of efforts to reestablish our Fourth Estate credentials.

Engagement matters, not just because it can help drive creativity and revenues, but because news media in particular urgently needs to reconnect with many audiences and demonstrate the value it brings to society. Trust in media and journalists — in the US, UK and many other countries — is at a record low. If we can more effectively demonstrate this value, then perhaps, just perhaps, audiences will be more willing to pay for it.

In these uncertain times, recognition that we need to interact with audiences in new spaces — better understand what they are already telling us — and measure success in different ways, needs to be at the heart of every business strategy. Doing this successfully is fundamental to the future health of our industry.

Originally published at

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