What gets measured gets done**. If you want to shift your newsroom to an audience-first approach, then you must set and hold the newsroom accountable for audience goals. No amount of training, town hall discussions, strategy studies, brown bag lunches or other approaches to describing and encouraging audience-first changes will gain as much traction.
Miami’s newsroom leaders, for example, set a goal to grow traffic by 7.5% – then provided folks access to Chartbeat to help them monitor progress against that goal.
By taking this key first step, Miami put the newsroom’s focus in play – that is, while some folks (not all!) grumbled, all of them experienced a new reality – a new question: is our audience responding to what we do?
Not: was this a great story in our own estimation?
Not: did I/we get this story on A1?
Not: did I/we hold this important story for Sunday?
Rather: did the audience respond? And, if so, why? Or, if not, why not?
Start with setting goals for traffic and engagement. Here are some tips to guide how to set targets:
- Benchmarks – knowing some base line starting point – can help you choose target goals. You might find benchmarks internally (metrics you already keep) or externally (for example, information you have about top performing sites in your market) or both. If you use external sources from competitors, though, make sure the competitors are going after the same audiences you are. Another approach is to ask yourselves, ‘what is our ‘fair share’ of the audience we seek to serve?” For example, one could argue Pepsi’s fair share of the cola market is, perhaps, at best half of it.
However you go about finding benchmarks, do so fast. For example, if you turn to competitor data or the estimating your “fair share,’ remember you may well be doing ‘back of the envelope’ estimates. In other words, do not fall into the trap of wanting too much precision or analysis. Instead, even if you cannot easily find a benchmark, then forget it. Set some traffic and engagement goals, and get going! Within a month or two, you’ll have the benchmark – the baseline – you need to calibrate whether the goals you set were aggressive – or, more likely, not aggressive enough.
- Include “stretch.” The most useful goals are stretch goals –ones that are aggressive and achievable. Try to avoid setting goals that are simply too easy (you’ll not learn anything) or too hard (demoralization sets in).
- Choose actionable time frames. It’s fine to set traffic and engagement goals over, say, ‘the next 6 plus months.’ However, if you do this, make sure those goals are translated into nearer term goals with shorter cycles such as, say, 2 to 5 weeks. “6 month” goals by themselves will not initiate focus or action. Instead, folks will likely forget about them. Shorter cycle times – 2 to 5 weeks – produce the kind of rapid experimentation and learning that sustain a focus on what is working and what is not working in terms of audience response. They also help you figure out when goals are either too easy or too hard – and how to adjust quickly.
- If needed, differentiate goals among desks: Some desks – some content areas – may well have different limits for audience appeal. It’s possible, for example, that sports will more easily attract audience traffic and engagement when compared with, say, coverage of environmental policy. Audience-first approaches can surprise you and even disprove such assumptions. Still, if setting a different bar for some coverage areas versus others will help your newsroom embrace and go after traffic and engagement goals, then do so.
- If needed, make the first phase exclusively about learning: Ultimately, newsroom folks must be held accountable for audience goals – anything less will fail to move your newsroom and news enterprise to sustainable success. Still, many newsrooms have no history or experience in accountability for performance – for knowing that job security and advancement turns on delivering results. If this is the case for your newsroom, then clearly communicate that the first phase of goal setting and measurement is about learning what works versus what does not work as opposed to personal performance with job consequences. If you choose this route, you must also be clear that following such an initial phase, the job consequences will become reality.
Once you have set target goals, make sure your newsroom folks have at least some data tools – such as Chartbeat – to monitor their performance (see below for a more extensive discussion about data and metrics). And, require desk editors to regularly review and report on performance against the goals – as well as what is being learned.
Finally, use actual performance results to drive choices for how you allocate time and resources. As part of this, make sure to stop coverage that fails to attract audiences.
This does not mean: stop doing mission-based work. It does not mean failing to hold powerful people and institutions accountable in the finest traditions of journalism.
Rather, it means to force yourselves to ask, discuss and decide whether coverage that fails to attract audiences truly is core to your mission – or, as is often the case, just a reflection of cherished beliefs.
Remember: a message to be a message must be heard. The best, most insightful coverage of what you might consider mission-oriented work is unsuccessful if no one reads it. And, it consumes time, energy and resources that can better support serving audiences in ways they benefit from and respond to.
** This rule of thumb cuts both ways. If you measure – and reward – the wrong things, those will also get done. So, for example, newsrooms that perpetuate monitoring A1 placements lock themselves into a print-centric past that doesn’t work instead of embracing an audience-first present and future that can.