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Match the steps you take to the actions you hope the audience will take

You must embrace a continuous cycle of test-and-learn. Here are steps you can take at each stage of a funnel to systematically move users to deeper levels of engagement.

This is an excerpt from “Table Stakes: A Manual for Getting in the Game of News,” published Nov. 14, 2017. Read more excerpts here.

You and your colleagues must get better every day at what makes the funnel effective. That means embracing a continuous cycle of choose-act-learn.

Here are steps you can take at each stage of a funnel to encourage users to move to the next stage of the funnel, and so forth. It’s imperative that you discuss these in advance to (1) make sure the particular suggestions make sense for your context and strategy; and, (2) make sure you and your colleagues understand the nature and purpose of the steps themselves.

Random/occasional user

The first step in the audience funnel is ‘to get them to come” – to attract to your site(s) as many potential users from your target audiences as possible (see Table Stake #1).

Begin by recalling Table Stake #1’s requirement to focus on specific, target audiences as opposed to the ‘general public.’ Different approaches are required to attract different kinds of audiences to the top of the funnel. For example, steps that you take to reach high school sports fans and supporters will differ from those you use to reach luxury real estate buyers.

Users in your target audiences might come to the top of your funnel because (1) they know your brand; (2) they link through social platforms; (3) they link from search; and/or (4) they come via distribution partnerships you have with others. Consider, then:

Social platforms

First, revisit Table Stake #2 to explore choices for which social platforms to use as well as setting your objectives for the ones chosen. Remember to distinguish your own social platforms versus those controlled by others – and, within the latter, those that link back to your site versus those that don’t.

Once you have selected social platforms to use, here are considerations for using trial-and-error, test-and-learn approaches to attract users to the top of your funnel:

  • Timing: Time your posts to match user patterns and rhythms on the platform in question (versus, say, your print deadlines)
  • Mobile: Social and mobile go hand-in-hand. The form and style of your content must fit the mobile platform (versus, say, merely redirecting text from a print article)
  • Visual: Visuals often attract users better than pure text
  • Tone: Social content does better when presented in the language of the social medium – when the tone presents your brand with a distinctive social voice
  • Platform specifics: Each social platform has its own specific advantages and approaches. For example, on Twitter, you will attract more users by tagging influencers, geo-targeting, using mentions and hashtags, and joining into conversations when you/your site are mentioned. Meanwhile, social platform algorithms continually evolve and change. For example, in 2016, Facebook de-emphasized publisher posts in favor of those from friends and family – making it more important than ever to have your content be shareable while also thinking hard about encouraging others to post on your behalf.
  • Archives: Many users appreciate and engage with the context made possible by your archives. For example: The Atlantic has had more than half of traffic in a given month come from using archival stories to put news into context


Search, dominated of course by Google, drives referral traffic. You can use search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) to make it easier for your target audiences to find your site(s):

  • SEO
    • Know where you rank on key search terms, including the name of your city and any other important identifiers
    • Consistently improve your search standing with SEO best practices, including site speed and page load times, tagging, image quality, inbound and outbound links, etc.
  • SEM
    • Use ongoing SEM to promote your brand and key products/services
    • Boost visibility during peak traffic periods (big breaking news, city events, major enterprise reporting projects, etc.)

Distribution partnerships

You can partner with others to drive traffic to one another’s site(s). For example, you might experiment with:

  • Partnering with other sites in your market such as local businesses, trade groups, fan sites and more in order to increase the visibility of your brand as well as cross-linking. Such partnerships might range from simple link exchanges to full-scale joint marketing partnerships using shared email lists and co-promotion
  • Sharing resources in ways that benefit one another. For example:
  • Putting your reporters on air via radio/TV partnerships with local outlets
  • Working together on projects and/or beats that deliver free promotional value to your organization

Periodic use and brand familiarity

Once you’ve attracted users to your site – you’ve got them to come – the next challenge is to ‘get them to stay.’ This requires constant test-and-learn efforts aimed at providing users compelling, easy-to-use experiences aimed at (1) keeping them on your site; (2) revisiting your site; and, (3) increasing the odds the users take actions that are useful to them and to you. Here are thought starters:

Deliver acceptable user experience (UX)

Consider, for example, speed. Data that consistently shows a wait time of three seconds causes a high abandonment rate. Yet, most metro news sites are way too slow – for example, according to one report, the average load time for U.S. newspaper sites was 17 seconds. Audiences will not return to a site that’s aggravatingly difficult to load, particularly on mobile devices. Fixing this problem can have a major effect on the retention step in the funnel. There’s a direct correlation between page load time and business performance, in addition to the obvious benefits to the user experience. The Washington Post, for example, cut page load times by 85 percent and saw an immediate benefit to audience growth.

Consider email because it is, in many ways, a perfect news delivery and marketing mechanism combined:

  • It’s personal. Delivered directly to you from a brand you know/trust.
  • You can adjust the tone – for example, make the emails conversational.
  • You have many options: daily digest, weekly summary, breaking/developing, topic-based (RSS or curated, always-on or story with legs), author-based, etc.
  • It’s on-demand. The timing and frequency of use is in the consumer’s hands.
  • It’s flexible in terms of customer choices. For example, when a customer considers unsubscribing, you can provide options such as decreasing frequency or switching to another email product

Invest in conversations both online and off:

  • Encourage comments and participate in the conversation online. Consider steps you can take to participate in and move conversations forward, perhaps using real identity rules to keep civility high, and (occasionally) curating comments/conversations to summarize and shed light on important topics and issues.
  • Connect virtual online dialogue to the real-world connections with live events built around news and/or issues or topics of interest to your target audiences.
  • Experiment and learn-by-doing with offering audiences access to conversations with newsmakers, topic-based panels, ideas, festivals – and other ways of using your brand’s convening power.

Encourage registration and login

Registration is key to success at funneling. Without registration, it’s difficult to get accurate and actionable data about your users. With it, you can create a better, more personal experience and shape content of greater interest – all grounded in what you learn about users. Registration also helps boost subscription conversion rates and the sale of more targeted, higher CPM advertising. Consider:

  • Giving your audience reasons to register – such as access to better features like on-site personalization or in-person event attendance, standard features like commenting or email newsletters, new features like beta releases, or additional access like increased meter count for those with metered subscription models.
  • Making registration frictionless by minimizing the steps and information/data needed (for example, perhaps require only an email address and (maybe) password).
  • Defer additional data requests until later. Users tend to get more comfortable providing additional information (like title or address) after they gain more familiarity through more frequent use.

Regular, habitual use

Convert periodic users into regular, habitual users by engaging them to increase how often and how deeply they experience your content, products and services. You want them to become hooked.

Here are thought starters:


When users register, make sure their first post-registration experience – how they onboard – is rewarding. Welcome them as members of a club, introduce them to site/app features and functionality, and remind them about the amazing content and tools they now have at their disposal.

Navigation techniques to keep users on your site

Whether users arrive at a story page (typically the case for social and search) or your home page, article-to-article linkages, your own or other users’ content recommendations, and ‘infinite,’ easy-to-scroll actions are all supremely important.


The more you customize a user’s experience to fit their needs and interests, the more likely they are to regularly use your site(s). The spectrum of personalization options range from simply highlighting/recommending stories based on a user’s past consumption all the way to entirely customizing the content and options provided based in a blend of user stated preferences and past behavior/usage.


Remember that it’s key for you to go to your audiences and not just wait for them to come to you. Notifications are a powerful way to do this. Whether through apps, the desktop, email or other means, make sure to alert registered users about trending or breaking stories as well as content or features that serve their interests and needs.

Interactivity (including gamification/game mechanics)

Interactivity by its nature keeps users engaged – such things as quizzes, data-driven discovery, prompts to ‘learn more’ and so forth. Indeed, you might ask users themselves to provide anecdotes or data as part of building/exploring an ongoing story. Games and gamification of content/experience are another form of this. To work, though, you must tailor content and approaches in ways that provide users a clear purpose and a goal to pursue and deliver value to users who participate/play.

Paying for content and actively recommending your content to others.

You have got them to come and got them to stay.   Now you must get them to pay – to commit to, and become advocates for, your brand.

Here are thought starters:


In contrast to attracting and retaining subscribers to a newspaper, the newsroom working with marketing and/or consumer revenue folks (not circulation) must convert users to payers. This is the case whether your news enterprise depends on digital subscriptions, newsletter subscriptions, crowd funding resources, event ticket sales or other means by which users of your content financially support that content.

It also matters for more nuanced steps you need users to take – e.g. giving you data. Data is essential to a variety of revenue opportunities at each stage of the funnel, including advertising and subscriptions but also such things as events, special offers, convening and others. Data on a specific user, via registration or signing up for an email newsletter or pulling from a social graph, helps create a pipeline for revenue in other areas. Similarly, even non-registered users can have a wealth of data (via the site cookie) that can be useful for all sorts of monetization options. For example, knowing a user’s site consumption patterns (reads a lot of stories about public education issues) and geography (lives in a certain part of town) can allow you to target that user with information about an upcoming education event in their area via on-site messaging.

So, you should stay aware that, even absent a pay model, data is a form of ‘payment’ you require in exchange for what you offer.

Whether it’s money/payment or data, though, it is table stakes for the newsroom to hold themselves accountable for results. Marketing and technology play key roles. Through such activities as advertising and public relations, marketing folks can help communicate and sell the benefits users gain when they pay. Marketing folks can also help with pricing as well as A/B testing design. And, technology folks are essential to insure that your news enterprise delivers a user experience (UX) that matches or exceeds user expectations.


Content differs from, say, cars and mutual funds because your users who have great experiences – especially loyal, habitual users – can and will refer, promote and advocate to friends and others without necessarily purchasing. Word of mouth matters – and is more likely to happen when you create and deliver indispensable content and experiences that your users believe strongly help them connect with others. And, you might stimulate all this with various refer-a-friend tactics – for example, looking to your data to identify habitual users, then offering those users discounts or special deals or opportunities in exchange for friend referrals. You can and should also just ask: TheSkimm, for example, uses a tried-and-true fitness gym tactic, by creating a Skimmbassador program to acknowledge users who have signed up a certain number of friends as email subscribers.

Shares on social, of course, are an essential way to track who and how often your users recommend and advocate on your behalf. The net promoter score described earlier is an additional approach to measuring this.


Once you have folks paying for your content, you need to keep them doing so. This is common sense but also supported by research and experience in industry after industry: the value of a paying customer far exceeds the value of a prospective paying customer. The newsroom (along with help from marketing and technology) must focus on:


Ensuring that everything that can be done is done to convince paid supporters to continue paying. There are many tactical steps from a digital marketing and digital product perspective to consider (billing, customer service, save-the-stop initiatives, etc.) but also opportunities to provide new content/product/services as incentives to renew. For example: At The New York Times, the most loyal subscribers were offered access to beta products and insider events.


Ensuring that loyal users who show signs of disengagement are pulled back into the fold. For example: When data shows a user is trending down in email open rates or number of return visits to the site, a “come back to us” email message may be appropriate. The onboarding steps described earlier can apply when you’re starting to lose a consumer, too. Use similar tactics to re-engage folks whose loyalty (based on frequency, page depth, etc.) is beginning to slip.

Reducing churn

Churn is bad. It measures the turnover among paying users. For example, imagine a three-month time frame at the beginning of which you have 20,000 digital subscribers and at the end you have 21,000. If none of the 20,000 left, churn would be zero. If, on the other hand, 5,000 of those left, it means you had to gain 6,000 new subscribers just to have a 1,000 incremental gain. In that case, churn is way too high. It means your news enterprise is working far too hard basically just to stand still.