Audience strategy and development: What does it take to fulfill your mission?
This chapter covers market assessment and what it takes to fulfill a nonprofit’s mission. It discusses strategies for building both a direct audience and distributed audiences, which are reached through syndication and redistribution of content. It offers resources on building an email list and creating newsletters to develop an audience willing to support the organization.
“When the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.”
— Clay Shirky
The key to audience development is the theory of the audience funnel. At the top of the funnel you attract as many people as possible to interact with your organization. Ultimately, at the bottom of the funnel, you’ll have a smaller group of people, but they will be the ones who sustain your organization over time. They will be so engaged with your content and such champions of your organization that they will fund your work.
A key aspect of audience development is knowing your potential audience. You can’t assume it’s the whole universe. Not everybody wants your content. To identify your potential audience you must do some market research, which may sound like an unfamiliar job, but journalists know how to do research and the next page of this guide will show you where to start. Whether the market is geographic or topical, figures are available showing how many people the market encompasses. Who are the competitors in that market, and what percentage of the market has supported those competitors? If a publication in the market shut down, why did that happen, and what percentage of that publication’s subscriber base could you reach to expose them to your startup? Are there new competitors coming in to fill the same void you have targeted?
Understanding the size and shape of your funnel must happen early in your business planning because it may lead you to rethink your product. For example: An education writer who has covered the schools in Springfield decides she will start a website about Springfield schools, aimed at the town’s parents and teachers. The population at the top of the funnel is limited, say 20,000 people, and market research shows (hypothetically) that in other towns, only one in five parents and teachers go online to get general news and information about local schools, and only one in five of those readers say they would pay for that news and information. Simple math shows that her organization has 800 possible donors. If they eventually gave her an average of $50 per year, her potential revenue would peak at $40,000. She decides that’s not enough to fund her costs, so she must start thinking about growing the number at the top of the funnel.
There are many ways to increase the potential audience. The organization could target a larger geographic area or broaden its topic. It also could add a product aimed at a separate audience, for example the education writer could repurpose some of her content into a newsletter aimed at policymakers statewide. At the same time, she would have to stay aware of any factors that could narrow the top of her funnel, such as a new competitor or demographic changes in the market.
Successful INN members have followed a target-then-grow strategy:
For example: EdSource targeted the teachers, administrators and officials who needed a more convenient way to access the vast amount of public information that affects education in California. Then it used social media to broaden readership to a much larger group — parents. The Texas Tribune started with statehouse news for political insiders, and its audience gradually broadened along with its coverage.
This chapter will explain how to apply these strategies.
The rest of this chapter goes into depth about all the work you should put into audience development, and it includes many links for further reading. Your guide is Tom Davidson, a journalist and digital-business leader who has worked for Gannett, PBS, Tribune Co. and his own startup. He starts with a question you may not have thought about:
Tell me what job you’re doing.
Nope. Not your “mission statement” (though it’s lovely and inspiring). And don’t try anything as vague as “We serve the information needs of our community!” People are overwhelmed with information – about the places they live, their jobs, their hobbies, the latest horror of reality TV, and especially that silly fundraiser their neighbor is running.
Seriously: What job do you do so well that the right portion of your community will visit you often enough that you can have impact? (Oh, and hopefully turn some of that audience into donors so you can keep your organization alive?)
Turns out that “job to be done” thing is vital to your organization’s future. (Need more motivation? Take a quick gander at these before-and-after readings about an attempt to start a replacement for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Spoiler alert: It did not go well.)
Fortunately for all of us, lots of smart people have spent years thinking about this “jobs to be done” thing.
Start with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, who invented the study of technological disruption (like the kind that has shredded the organizations many of us used to work for – and the kind that allows you to run your news nonprofit).
Or the American Press Institute’s wonderful “N2: A Blueprint for Transformation” project. (Leave aside the irony that API itself was forced to radically transform by changing economics of the media business.)
Or the Knight Foundation and Temple University’s “Table Stakes” project, which defines the things you must do to even have a chance to succeed in a digital-news environment. Rule #1: “Serve targeted audiences with targeted content.”
All of these focus on the same idea: Nobody seeks out a website, broadcast or an app to “fulfill their obligations as citizens.” Their needs are more particular: keeping up with the school calendar, or watching one particular development wend through City Hall, or watching the state Legislature because their next raise literally depends on the state budget.
Once upon a time, news products fulfilled a wide range of “jobs.” Think of a newspaper with local news AND nation/world reports AND the sports scores AND the horoscope AND Charlie Brown. Or think of the 6 p.m. broadcast that bundled together car crashes AND tomorrow’s weather AND some light features AND the hometown sports results.
Those things weren’t bundled together because there’s any natural connection among them (Really: how many horoscope fans also want to understand sub-Saharan Africa?). They were bundled together because of scarcity: Presses and broadcast licenses were too expensive to allow more than a handful of competitors in each place.
Technology has blown apart those economics. So the most successful organizations – think Pro Publica, ESPN or the Texas Tribune – are about very specific jobs to be done.
Great! Now: How many people are interested in that?
Let’s say (absurdly) that I want to be the premier source of information about … Olympic-caliber luge athletes … from Utah. As of this writing, there are two of them. Even with their families, that’s not much of an audience.
So how many people are in your potential audience pool?
Don’t say “everyone who lives in my city!” Because you’ve already picked a more-specific job to be done, right? (Maybe even more than one.)
Not everyone who lives in your city is going to be interested in public affairs … or in-depth investigative coverage of government contracts … or the statehouse. (Yes, they should care. They should also eat more vegetables, and call their mothers more often. We’re dealing with reality, though, not “shoulds.”)
A real-life example: Nearly 28 million people live in Texas.
The Texas Tribune, however, declares that its core audience comprises those people who care passionately about public policy, politics, government and statement issues. Sure, the Trib will gladly take traffic (and donations) from any of the 28 million … but it focuses on reaching and serving the 4 million or so who fit their target “job to be done.”
Marketers call that the “total addressable market.” (You can read more about it in the customer research chapter of “Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” an excellent, and free, textbook.)
The Texas Tribune got to that 4 million number through looking at its current audience; U.S. Census and other public data about population and demographics; and finally by conducting some private market research. You don’t need to go to those lengths – at least not at first. But start by pulling together any and all information you can get about the number of people who have that job that you can do.
If your organization is built around a community of geography, start with the basic population data you can find at the American FactFinder, part of the U.S. Census. Grab any information you can get from your city, county or state about retail sales or other economic indicators, too.
If you’re serving a local or national community of interest – say, public education in Philadelphia – look to trade associations and licensing boards for more. In addition to the number of kids in Philly schools, for example, you should know how many licensed teachers there are in the district. (Pro tip: Find the research librarian at your local public library – or at a local university should you have access as a teacher or a student. Libraries often have pro-level statistics and research databases, like Factiva, Data Planet. Looking for directories of foundations or philanthropies? Check the Foundation Center and GuideStar data at Candid.org, and with your local community foundation.)
Finally, there’s one last piece of this “market assessment” – who is willing to pay for you to do that job? In other words, what local foundations or philanthropies share your interest in the issue you’re covering?
To recap: Your goal is to write a one-page market assessment that:
With this first cut at a market assessment, you’re ready to take the next step – developing an audience development plan.
Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship book
Community Information Toolkit (The Knight Foundation produced this systematic approach to finding out how neighborhoods get their news, what type of information is lacking, and how communities can go about filling those gaps.)
(continuing with Tom Davidson’s contribution)
Do it right, and you’re on a solid path to sustainability. Don’t bother with it at all and you’ll forever be scrambling to achieve your goals. Your organization might fail. Sounds daunting, and in fact, developing and implementing an audience development plan involves continual work. The one-time research you conducted to decide the “job” you’re going to do for your audience was just the beginning.
This section is about making a constant effort to recognize that all your community/audience members aren’t the same, and understanding those differences will be your job month in and month out. You or someone in your organization will be devoting time to that task instead of writing or editing content. It’s a job that legacy news organizations assigned to marketing and circulation departments, but in the digital news era, newsrooms should understand the audiences. In fact, they may be uniquely positioned to do so.
The reality? Many people who could benefit from your work have never even heard of you. Only some of those who have heard of you have ever consumed your work. Most of those people visit only sporadically.
But a handful – a vital handful – are loyal users. They are your biggest fans, the ones who spread the word about your awesomeness and the ones most likely to provide other support you need. A common way of thinking about that progress is as an audience development funnel. (Some of you might want to turn it upside down and think of it as a ladder. That’s OK. We won’t judge.)
The key stages are:
Awareness: The portion of your community that has heard about you – but hasn’t sought out any of your work yet.
Sampling: They’re part of your audience – but the fickle part. They’ve visited. Once or twice. And not for long. Analytics people call these “one-and-dones,” as in people who visit, read one piece of content, then disappear.
Habit: Those people who visit you a couple of times a month – more than average, in other words. But you probably don’t know who they are.
Loyalty: The heavy consumers of your work – people who can’t do without you. Collectively, they’re probably only 10 to 15 percent of your total visitors, but they’re generating half of your content views.
Advocacy: Your BFFs. The people who forward your work to friends, cajole others into checking you out, and maybe even give you money.
At every step, the pool gets smaller, but the engagement increases dramatically. And if you’re thoughtful – and take the right steps – you can move people down the funnel (or up the ladder) to greater engagement. Think about steps you can take to move a portion of the audience to the next stage.
This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive – and there’s no “one size fits all” playbook. But here are some techniques worth testing:
To build awareness: Participate in community events – yes, physical ones if you can, but don’t ignore the virtual ones. Every community out there has a message board or Facebook group. Participate in them – and not just as a promoter: (“Read our lovely content!”). Instead, be an active force for good – offer advice, make connections, genuinely engage and be part of the community. It builds awareness of your project – and also persuades people to sample your work.
To build sampling: Promote your work where it makes sense. Social media, for sure. But also make sure your work is easily discovered and shared. That means search-engine optimization, and making sure your page designs include other stories. (Don’t be like a public-media site that once featured a design in which every article page was a dead-end with no obvious link back to any other part of the site.) The right partnerships make sense, too – if they’re designed in a way to get people to visit your digital presences (not just read everything somewhere else).
Loyalty and habit are about making it easy for people to return to you – and email newsletters are an effective method.
To envision the what your funnel will look like, consider what it will take to move some of your audience members through it. Your starting point is your Market Assessment – that research you performed about the total size of the community you seek to serve. (You remember – this module? Oh, you didn’t do it? Go back. We’ll wait.)
Start with your Total Potential Market – the largest possible group of “community members” who might ever be interested in you.
Now get realistic: How many of them can you reach? What other competitors are competing for their attention? That’s your Total Addressable Market. (It’s smaller than the Total Potential Market. A lot smaller. Especially when you’re starting. Deal with it – it’s better to be conservative at this stage.)
Now: how many are you reaching TODAY if you already have launched? That number is easy to find, in Google Analytics or other metrics software. (Just keep in mind: Unique visitors means devices. A visitor who sees your work on a desktop computer, laptop and phone counts as three unique visitors – but just one human.)
The total unique visitors for the past month is probably a lot smaller than the total size of your community (that potential audience). That’s OK. Think of it as your growth potential.
Now’s where the real digging starts: Let’s say you have 50,000 visitors in a month. What portion of them are loyal or habitual users?
The sad truth: Something like half of your visitors came once, then left and didn’t return. (That’s especially true if you had a piece of content that went viral.) It’s great that your work was exposed – but those “one and dones” aren’t an audience you can easily monetize – and if you fixate only on growing that number, you’re on the Path to the Dark Side of Clickbait.
Instead, do some math: Take your unique visitor number. Divide it by the number of visits. (You’ll find that in your analytics software, too). That’s the average visits per unique. It’ll probably be two to four visits per month. Now: Look at the portion of your visitors who came more than average. It’s probably a small percentage – certainly less than 25 percent – but that small fraction of your audience was likely responsible for half or more of your total content views. Those are your loyal and habitual users. And a subset of them are potential subscribers / members / donors. (Ken Doctor’s excellent “Seven percent solution” outlines this phenomenon brilliantly.)
Once you know these stages – and the rough proportion of your audience in each – you can develop the guts of your audience plan. Those are a series of steps to grow the total audience and move some of them through the process toward becoming loyals and advocates.
That brings us back to the warning at the beginning of this section that we would be talking about continual work, which can be summed up as “Build, measure, learn.”
It’s really just applying the scientific method to your audience efforts. Don’t go into new projects saying “Let’s try this new thing to, ummm, see if it works!”
Instead, chart out specific goals that you can measure and test against reality:
“We theorize that a weekly email newsletter of our top stories will increase repeat visits by recipients. We will promote and launch that newsletter on (Date), and compare return visits by subscribers 90 days later. We’ll deem this a success if we have 2,500 newsletter subscribers by that time, AND those subscribers’ average visits per month are at least 15% higher than non-recipients.”
Those goals help you to understand what’s working – and, just as important, stop doing things that aren’t.
Did our weekly email newsletter hit its goals?
Yes: Keep doing it! Think about expanding!
We missed by a mile: Stop! Spend your time, effort and money elsewhere!
No, but we were close: These are the tough ones. What tweaks could you make to improve performance? Did you promote the effort enough? Is your email signup process too clunky? Is that new content initiative really doing a “job” that the audience wants done – or are we simply publishing for ourselves?
You’ve probably figured out the hidden secret in this by now: Your audience plan isn’t an act, because it never ends. One test leads to another. Each deployment of a new feature or project is measured – and whether it works or fails, you learn something that informs the next set of experiments and ideas. In other words, your audience development plan is a mindset as much as anything else: Build. Measure. Learn.
A Tale of Two Newsrooms: Lessons on Accurately Assessing Your Audience (Tom Davidson via INN, 2018 video)
Doing Journalism … Is an Act of Community Organizing (2010 – Ignore the date. This is a gem from Robert Niles, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who runs sites as varied as Theme Park Insider and Violinist.com. If you like it, I strongly encourage you to pick up his follow-up book (available in electronic formats or paperback), “How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online.”)
— Tom Davidson
(Continuing with Tom Davidson’s contribution)
You’ve done lots of work to get to this point – defining your “job to be done,” researching the potential and actual size of your audience, understanding the intricacies of the audience funnel. It’s all useless – and your vital mission will go unmet – if you can’t build and grow an audience for your work.
There are many methods – and no set formula that will work for your project. But here are some quick idea-starters. Look through them, brainstorm your own, and then apply the measuring and testing process described in the previous section (The Audience Development Plan).
Sites that cover a geographic community can use in-person events much more easily than sites that cater to a community of interest that may be spread over an entire continent. But assuming you can meet your community face to face, what is the best way? Community newspapers learned long ago that they could not only cover the local parades and little league season openers, but could participate with sponsorships. Their people could set up booths, hand out promotional products such as T-shirts, meet new customers and remind others that they are part of the community. As the old saying goes: News ain’t in the newsroom. So find ways to meet your community where they are.
INN members run elaborate events such as the Texas Tribune Festival, which has drawn thousands of attendees over three days in downtown Austin. But INN member Mississippi Today makes a point of hosting more intimate events – open conversations in bars – with a Newsroom in the Taproom series. Other variations could be coffee-shop meetups with your editors or receptions with your donors where their “price of admission” is bringing someone who doesn’t know your organization.
You don’t have to organize all these events yourselves. Offer to do a meet-and-greet at community events, share your expertise on a conference panel, or help promote a community concert in exchange for a table in the lobby to promote your organization.
The keys: Be authentic. Make sure your presence enhances the event, rather than interrupting it. And – if you can – collect email addresses of interested people!
Why the focus on email addresses? Because you can do so much with them. Eventually, your development director can ask them for money. But not at first; that would be like a speed-dating marriage proposal.
Instead, you should have a templated series of emails you send to new acquaintances, explaining your project, discussing some of your successes, and asking for help in getting the word out about your work. Your goal is not to ask for money (yet) but to get these new friends to read and watch your work, and hopefully to build a habit of usage.
Maybe your audience problem is that people sample you but don’t come back often enough. Your metrics may show a high percentage of unique visitors who come to your site only once a month. Even the best sites have “one-and-done” rates of 50 percent – thanks, social media. But if your rate is pushing 70 percent or more, you need to do more to build habit.
Email newsletters are a terrific tool – one of the best – for building loyalty. They remind people of the value of your work, and they put them only one quick tap of their phone away from your work.
For proof of this concept, look at Current.org, the INN member that covers the world of public media. In the metrics of site traffic by day of the week, a spike appeared every seven days following the Thursday publication of a weekly email newsletter.
You can start, as Current does, with a weekly compendium of your best headlines. But look for other newsletter ideas, too – are there other jobs you could do for specialized audiences? Those might make worthwhile newsletters, too.
Email addresses have another – and powerful – use: You can use tools like Facebook lookalike marketing (and Google’s “retargeting” tools) to cheaply advertise to specific email addresses (those people you met at a community event, say) – and to others whom you don’t know but should.
Here’s how that works: Take a list of known fans of your work. (Maybe they’re loyal subscribers to an email newsletter, or steady donors). You can upload that list to Facebook and ask Facebook’s algorithms: “How many people in this geographic area (or who share this set of interests) look like the people whose emails I just uploaded?
In other words: If you have a list of just a couple hundred known fans, Facebook can use that trove of information they know about all of us to find other people who likely have the same interests – and thus would be interested in knowing about your project.
For a more detailed explanation of the techniques involved, see the free classes on audience targeting at Meta Blueprint.
This used to be a lot easier: Build a base of Facebook fans. Post content. Watch your audience build. Nearly a third of Americans regularly get news on Facebook.
What Facebook giveth, Facebook can taketh. That doesn’t mean your social media presence is useless; it just means that you can’t rely on Facebook automatically showing your stuff to all of your followers for free anymore.
Instead, be strategic: Yes, encourage sharing. Yes, post your best stories (and get your staff, board and friends to post, like and share). But also pay attention to how others use the tools. Notice, for instance, how The New York Times uses sponsored posts – yes, paid ads – to promote great stories and to promote subscriptions. You might want to test how similar techniques can help you build newsletter signups or donations – both from your current followers as well as those “lookalike” audiences mentioned above.
These are just starting points for a true audience development plan – or, more accurately, your audience-development process. The key is to relentlessly focus on ways to grow your numbers – and then persuading some of those users to make your project part of their news habit. Test those ideas. Keep doing the ones that work; discard the ones that don’t and move on to the next.
How the Biggest Consumer Apps Got Their First 1,000 Users (Lenny’s Newsletter, 2020)
We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.
— Albert Einstein
At the end of Chapter 2, we introduced the Basic Strategy Decision Tree and asked you to decide whether your business model will be anchored in one of these two strategies:
News nonprofits often end up doing a mix of both strategies, so this section on redistribution or syndication is relevant even if you have your own platform (website, newsletter, podcast, etc.)
In Chapter 1, you asked your community what they needed from you and how they wanted to get it, and in the previous sections of Chapters 2 and 3, you formulated your mission and targeted an audience, deciding whom you are serving. Your thinking about your potential audience may have been expansive: Everybody needs your news. But as a startup, you need to be tactical about building your audience. Unless you have an enormous bankroll and dozens of staffers, the more specific you are in your targeting, the faster you will be successful and the more successful you will be.
Determining your distribution strategy is the next logical step, because it will affect the crucial decisions you make in Chapter 4 regarding how you will earn revenue. As noted before, a direct local audience increases your potential for major reader revenue, but if you mostly distribute your news through other media, readers may not recognize your brand and you’ll need other sources such as major donors and event sponsors.
Free distribution: Almost all nonprofits give away content or syndicate it at fairly low cost for one reason or another. How you do so should be based on the decision you have made whether or not to anchor your business model on building your own direct audience. In the publication model, the free distribution is a form of marketing, and your end goal is to get those readers back as a direct audience. In the reporting service model, you give away content to increase your journalistic impact, which is tied to your grants and major donor funding.
Putting content out on social media is a classic example of free distribution for the marketing effect: You want people to discover your brand, find your website, become regular visitors, convert to subscribers, attend your events, or become members. INN’s member resources include social media support.
Paid distribution: Some nonprofits focus on paid syndication. Journalists who are well-known statewide can market their brand, and those who are expert in a subject area can fill coverage gaps for established publications. This business model is often called redistribution because the originator of the content puts it onto a website or into a newsletter, but the primary distribution method is through others. We also have called it a studio model, because it’s like the movie business where film creators rely on distributors and theater companies to put their product in front of viewers.
INN has negotiated licensing agreements allowing its members to distribute their content via several third-party platforms, most of which pay the member a small fee.
Mixed models: A reporting service that relies on paid syndication might offer free content as a loss-leader to get distributors used to carrying it and to prove its value to readers. A publication might use free distribution for coverage of a topic for which it has a patron or grant funding that wants a wider audience. Or free publication might result from a partnership or collaboration. Many nonprofits provide content in exchange for something of value besides cash.
Five things to ask for:
When another outlet republishes or otherwise distributes your content, knowing this is happening and analyzing the resulting engagement helps you and your funders understand your reach and how you are fulfilling your mission.
A Republication Tracker Tool originally developed by INN Labs allows publishers to share their stories via other websites and then track engagement of those shared stories with Google Analytics.
Simple metrics include page views and total unique users. Sites offering paid subscriptions or asking users to contribute or become members measure those “conversions” similar to how an e-commerce site tracks sales. Publishers are increasingly using time on site, time spent with particular content and frequency of visits to measure engagement.
Ample background on metrics is available online, including this 2018 article from Mediashift.org.
Our friends at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School have researched how nonprofit, single subject news sites can engage, grow and monetize their online audiences. If your organization is focusing on a single subject, such as health or education, we recommend you follow the Single Subject News Project blog on Medium.