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Use criteria to select some target audiences and audience-focused teams

Using defined criteria for making key decisions is an enormously important discipline to build in your news enterprise. The best way to learn how to serve targeted audiences with targeted content is to ‘just do it.’ Get going now!

Get going! The best way to learn how to serve targeted audiences with targeted content is to ‘just do it.’ You should, of course, be smart about choosing the target audience focus with which to start – and this section provides guidance for that. But don’t fall into the trap of using the criteria and process described here as a crutch or excuse to delay. Get going now!

Using defined criteria for making key decisions is an enormously important discipline to build in your news enterprise and newsroom. In the case of selecting target audiences, criteria ensure better decision making by:

  • Making thinking explicit. Too often, the factors guiding individual judgments go unspoken. In contrast, when folks discuss each factor for consideration and write down what’s learned and used, they are far better positioned to implement, review and adjust choices.
  • Calibrating against biases and assumptions while surfacing insights. Discussing and defining criteria helps reveal unique perspectives – whether blind spots and prejudices that hurt or insights that help.
  • Allowing for weighting. Once criteria are explicitly defined, you have the option to weight them differently if some factors are more important than others. This, too, works better than having each individual alone implicitly weight each factor.
  • Providing consistency in evaluations. Too often – and not just in the news industry — discussions of one option focus on one set of factors while the discussion of the next option shifts to a different mix of factors. Assessing each option against the same agreed upon list of factors ensures each option gets the same treatment.

Minneapolis initiated the journey toward audience-first approaches with, among others, an effort aimed at Twins fans. Miami began with some “Incs”: Food and Cuba for example. And Dallas invited folks in the newsroom to propose and get going with what they called ‘obsessions.’ All used explicit criteria to make choices. Minneapolis, for example, weighed the following:

  • This audience has enough potential users with strong passion to move us closer to our digital subscription goals
  • We can be best or tied for best at producing key elements of the content needed
  • We are already devoting resources to this
  • We have staff who want to do this
  • We can see a path to generating decent early stage revenue

Your criteria should fit your context and aspirations. And, while you may identify quite specific and unique factors, the core criteria you use should draw from the following:

Target audience prioritization and selection criteria

Traffic/Engagement potential Capability and will to serve and engage Revenue potential
–  In-market size of segment (based on basic demographic analysis and assumptions)

–  Likelihood to share content (multiplier effect)

–  Availability of influencers and opinion leaders to promote content

–  Orientation to social and mobile usage

–  Shared interests/passions

–  Shared purposes

–  Potential for place-based/local differentiation

–  Other?

–  Long-standing assets such as brands, convening power, credibility and authority that link to the target audience in question

–  Newsroom knowledge and experience relevant to the target audience in question, including insights into what is/are uniquely local

–  Skill as shaping a narrative that can build a strong sense of shared identify for the target audience in question

–  Whether there are any competitors who can serve the targeted audience better than you

–  Existing reporting staff enthusiasm about audience-first approaches

–  Availability of freelancers and/or relevant potential partners with expertise and networks

–  Other?

–  Likelihood to pay for content

–  Value to advertisers and sponsors

–  Potential interest in events, services, products, or other revenue generating approaches

–  Other? (see TS #5 for more on potential revenue sources)

Senior newsroom leaders along with the publisher or publisher’s designee should put together a small team to choose the criteria and make the assessments. Make sure to select folks who already think audience-first while also tapping into a broad range of knowledge, expertise and perspective. This group might include:

  • Reporters and editors who know your metro area well, naturally focus on audience, and think in terms of communities of interest (versus beats and institutions);
  • Audience development staff who think in terms of how each audience can be reached and grown;
  • Business and sales staff who can provide advertiser and sponsor interest as well as any other revenue potential
  • Technology and tool building staff who understand and can articulate audience preferences and implications related to platforms, your CMS, and tech tools

In addition, this team should structure a clear process for applying the criteria and making decisions. Your team should design the process to fit your unique circumstances. Make sure you consider the following steps:

  • Decide whether your team will nominate and choose target audiences and audience-based teams to serve them – or, in the alternative, whether your team will invite newsroom folks to submit proposals based on the criteria.
  • Either way, identify/nominate target audiences through some combination of (1) data, analytics and experience with target audiences you already serve; (2) target audiences that competitors currently serve yet you believe you could serve better; and, (3) target audiences not yet being served in your market.
  • Require specific and nuanced profiles of target audiences and the opportunities to serve them well. You might even ask folks to use personas – made up descriptions of individuals whose interests, needs, problems, media using behaviors and so forth characterize the target audience in question.
  • Ask each team member to independently rate each of potential target audiences against the criteria using the shared spreadsheet.
  • Meet to assess the collective ratings. Make sure to discuss the audiences with the greatest variation in ratings so that your team builds a shared understanding about the reasons for the differences and gains a common perspective on the ratings.
  • Choose how to move quickly to gather any additional information needed to clarify and decide among the audiences.
  • Make your selections and then challenge the teams selected to get going.

The selected teams should include reporters/producers and a leader. The team’s primary focus is serving the target audience. These teams will vary in size depending on the nature of the opportunity and the size of your newsroom. Teams might just include two or three folks. More than seven or eight becomes difficult and may indicate too broad of a target audience for most metro newsrooms.

The team needs to use the classic team discipline to be effective, meaning that across the team members there must be:

  • A common understanding of the target audience, the team’s objectives and goals for that audience, and the “content plus” strategy the team will use to achieve those goals (for more on this, see the next section);
  • Mutual accountability for meeting the team’s goals and objectives as well as individual accountability for one’s own work;
  • A commonly understood and agreed upon way of working together regarding such things as coverage planning, digital skills development, and collaboration on everything from headline writing to partner development;
  • Use of common tools for communications and coordination (e.g. Slack channels) and content production (e.g., story templates).

In staffing these teams, do your best to assemble folks with the range of complementary skills and perspectives most relevant to serve the target audience. In addition, don’t automatically assume the current desk editor is the best choice for team leader. She/he might be of course! But other candidates could include reporters more adept at an audience orientation and/or digital skills as well as audience developers and/or social media editors.

Finally, your senior leaders should charter the team to:

  • Develop an ever increasingly clear understanding of the target audience while sharpening the content-plus strategy to serve them
    • Think “audience first” and always ask what audience needs and interests are served by every piece of content
    • Use audience data continuously to better understand what content actually attracts and engages readers and viewers
    • Develop over time a clear profile of the audience being served and a deeper understanding of its needs and interests
    • Articulate and document this profile so it can be communicated to others (e.g. advertising)
  • Drive audience growth and engagement through intentional, ongoing, rapid design/do experiments and improvements
    • Set short sprints (2-4 weeks) with just one or two focused experiments or improvement areas at a time
    • Make sure these experiments test actions aimed at distribution (social platforms, promotion, distribution partnerships, etc.) as well as content
    • Use a simple work plan to write down planned actions and track their status during meetings (a very simple listing of actions, timeframe, responsibility)
    • Check in weekly as a team to assess what is working or not and why. Use those insights to identify and take appropriate follow steps
    • Keep a growing list of “what works” and what works best in what situations so these best practices can be shared and used across the team; add them to the team’s playbook.
  • Develop and use an audience scorecard
    • Develop, use and refine the audience scorecard itself.
    • Use the scorecard to conduct regular reviews of audience development, content performance, and individual reporter/producer performance.
  • Develop the team’s skills and capabilities
    • Assess skill levels and identify gaps for team members
    • Require team members to commit to specific skill development plans that link to performance goals – then tap into specialists, experts, training and coaching resources to help team members learn ‘just in time to perform’ (just in time to deliver results)
    • Develop points of expertise among team members and share skills as needed
  • Work across the organization to earn revenue from the target audience
    • Understand what drives ad revenue
    • Work collaboratively with marketing, sales, technology and others to use Table Stakes #4 (funneling occasional users into paying loyalists) and #5 (diversify and grow the ways you earn revenues from audiences) to identify, test and expand revenues from the target audience