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Audience development: A primer

In this rapidly evolving digital media landscape, publishing content where your target audience already spends their time is no longer just a strategic advantage. It’s an absolute necessity.

News organizations can no longer dictate the consumption habits of their readers, as they did in the print era. Nor can they expect readers to come to them for the news: They’re also turning to search engines, social media and news aggregators. A 2023 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 30% of American adults regularly turn to Facebook for news, while 26% look to YouTube and 16% to Instagram. The percentage of TikTok and Nextdoor users who regularly access news through those platforms has also risen sharply in recent years — as has the share of adults who access news through search engines

These changes require news organizations to engage on outside platforms, according to the needs and habits of their readers. Maintaining an effective presence on any given platform goes beyond simply publishing the news there; it involves creating compelling experiences around news content and building longer-term relationships. It’s no longer enough to be “platform agnostic,” or to publish content that works on multiple platforms without being designed for, or tied to, any particular one. Today’s digital newsrooms need to be “platform optimal,” tailoring content to fit the unique strengths of each place where they publish.

As for that perennial question — which platforms should news brands use? — it depends largely on any given platform’s ability to attract and retain the desired audience, enhance brand visibility, promote engagement and generate revenue. News organizations should make deliberate, strategic decisions about which platforms they join, rather than chase short-lived online trends. Audience strategy also needs to shift constantly, much like the moods and algorithms of online platforms themselves. 

News organizations should regularly assess their performance against competitors, revisit the value that each platform offers and explore new platforms when audience behavior changes or new trends emerge. A balanced platform “portfolio” might include mobile and desktop web, email newsletters, major social media networks and a handful of more niche digital spaces that allow for deeper engagement with a desired audience. To build a closer relationship with faith communities, for instance, The AFRO uses two-way text messages.

Whatever the platform, it’s also important that journalism organizations consider the culture and usage patterns of the audience there. Publishing should be timed to audience habits, not print-era or broadcast-only routines or newsroom schedules. Editors and reporters across the newsroom should also plan for publication on multiple platforms, with all the extra elements and strategy that entails, before a story runs on the main site — not after.

Organizations that commit to a proactive, strategic approach to digital publishing, and that ensure their content is accessible and engaging in all the places their readers congregate, see returns in the form of increased readership and brand loyalty.