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Audience funnel: A primer

Funnel discipline aims to streamline and enhance audience engagement and conversion processes for modern newsrooms, adapting techniques from marketing and sales to the unique context of digital news.

Generally speaking, the funnel approach guides potential and existing readers through a series of five stages: Awareness, Experience, Preference, Purchase/Loyalty and Advocacy/Promotion. These stages represent a reader’s journey from simply knowing about a news brand and visiting it occasionally to habitually engaging with the site and promoting its content. The goal of funnel discipline is to move people through these stages and create an engaged, paying audience. 

Doing so is no small task: Americans, by and large, are no longer accustomed to paying for news. According to a 2022 survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, just one in four adults has ever subscribed or donated to a news organization. (Notably, willingness to pay appears to be growing among younger generations.) Today, local news sites compete not only against other sites in their markets, but also against national and specialty publishers. They’re also battling a far wider array of subscription-based media and entertainment services for a share of consumer dollars. Platforms like Netflix and Spotify — as well as independent content creators on platforms including Substack and Patreon — all operate on similar business models. 

There are obstacles to effective funneling inside newsrooms, too: Some newsroom staff still consider the responsibility of attracting and retaining digital audiences outside their purview. This attitude, coupled with the misuse of digital metrics and ineffective digital content strategies, can result in missed opportunities for audience growth and engagement. 

Incorporating funnel discipline into a newsroom thus requires a strategic shift toward audience-centered journalism. All staff should have the tools, and the shared vocabulary, to measure how well they are reaching, retaining and engaging readers. By setting measurable, metrics-based goals at each stage of the funnel and monitoring the results, news organizations can adjust their strategies and develop an approach that best serves their audiences. 

News organizations should also take heed of experiential factors, such as slow website load times or poor design, that could turn potential readers and subscribers away. In the 2022 Gallup/Knight Foundation poll, roughly one in two readers said hitting a paywall would prompt them to click off-site — but how might you persuade them to stay? 

There are no easy, one-step answers. Funnel discipline requires newsrooms to overhaul content delivery, audience engagement and the overall digital experience. But there’s light at the end of the funnel: a sustainable future for news brands.