Audiences – who are you?

Media fall into the trap of writing for themselves, not their audiences

By Evgeniia Oliinyk, Eugene Zaslavsky, Jakub Parusinski

Disclaimer: The following report is based on a survey and follow-up interviews conducted in September-October 2018 with 24 independent regional media in Ukraine

Audience definition is the single most important decision for media – it determines how you distribute content, topics to prioritize, what journalists to hire... Too often regional media define audiences based on intuition and fall into the trap of “writing for themselves”. This makes analysis and target-setting difficult. Further, even when media produce quality materials, they misuse limited resources, promoting or distributing content through all channels, and fail to capture market share.

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(Un)defined audiences

Regional media typically define their audiences with vague descriptions (e.g., “the local urban and rural population”), with two-thirds using at most an age group to describe their target readers, listeners or viewers (e.g., “Successful people aged 23 to 45”).

A further 21% of media use some basic demographic data (i.a., gender, profession). However, even then such definitions can be muddled of contradictory. A typical example of this would be: “Active city and rural citizens aged 25 to 45, mostly men (65%); activists, representatives of local authorities”.

Only 12% of media have a detailed definition of their audience.
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Only  a handful have detailed portraits of audience members, including such factors as hobbies, education, qualifications and story interests (e.g. theatre reviews, useful content).

Superficial audience definitions make it challenging for media to design campaigns to capture market share, effectively survey their audiences, or attract advertising.

It also distracts from efforts to build relations and capture specific audience segments, with media instead going after too many highly differentiated groups –  and struggling with all (see example below on age group targeting).

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Monitoring vs. analyzing traffic

All media monitor traffic to their websites and social media pages, using a range of widely available tools. However, the quality of analysis – and what they do with it – varies significantly.

For most media monitoring traffic has changed relatively little in the past decade. They look at the numbers of visitors, sources of traffic, and a few basic demographic factors. This involves using Google or Facebook analytic solutions, and includes such factors as gender, age group, and in some cases key interests. 

While helpful this approach means media are “reactive” in their monitoring – looking at the traffic they get, not the one they want. To avoid this trap of “build it and see who comes” production, media should actively pilot ideas and test audience reactions (again, unclear audience definition is a challenge). Some 70% of media currently do this, although mostly focusing on distribution (e.g., adding photos to social media posts or playing with headlines), with little attention to improving content.

Only 20% of media analyze data indicators that allow them to improve content and support sales to advertisers.

Leading regional media (20%) use such indicators as  traffic sources, bounce rate, visit duration, number of pages read per visit and traffic to specific pages or sections, which helps editors tailor content to audience interests. Together with indicators about economic activity and reader engagement, this further allows media create a compelling proposals for advertisers – strengthening their ability to generate revenues and grow.

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Content distribution – an overwhelming task

All independent regional media actively use digital platforms, mostly social media, (often multiple ones – see graph below) and see them as a key means to reach their audiences.

Social media is used interact with the public, better understand audience needs and assess how media are perceived. However, this approach over-emphasizes opinions of highly active social media users and tends to focus on content, rarely covering such issues as distribution, brand awareness etc. 

Working with social media, particularly multiple platforms, is very time-consuming. To be effective, each piece of content should be tailored to specific platform features.

62% of media devote significant time and resources to social media although most their traffic is from other sources.

Given limited resources and massive staffing gaps (92% of media cannot fill key positions – see earlier report), deciding to use a platform has serious implications. Nonetheless, 62% of media spend significant time and resources on social media, even though they only generate a moderate or small amount of traffic for them. Furthermore, it is worth noting social traffic is less reliable vs. direct, as it depends on platform algorithms, which are liable to change.

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The decision of which social media networks to use is mostly based on preferences of senior staff rather than audience analysis. This is based on the assumption that readers are similar writers and will use the same platforms.

In order to be successful, however, it is not enough to use the right platform. Social media use should serve to increase visitors and brand awareness, which in turns means the social media posts are clearly recognizable. Over 70% of media brand their social content (although 20% only do this via logo, rather than colors and formatting), implying that almost 30% are missing a key chance to strengthen their brand.

Ensuring that media organizations make full use of social media’s potential almost means running a parallel production process. Each platform has specific optimal times to post content, visual preferences, content formats  and operating model. Given differences in audience by social media platform, and hence different models and opportunities to sell ads or subscriptions, this multiplies workloads on commercial staff (where they exists). Perhaps most importantly, though, only a third of media have social media managers, implying the task of running de facto multiple media (or at least multiple media channels) falls on the same already overstretched editorial teams.

Recommendations:

  • Media should over-invest in defining audiences, incl. via the use of detailed indicators (i.e., not just quantity of page views). This requires analytical and organizational support (e.g., strategic sessions, technical training)
  • Raise the bar for quality of audience analyses, emphasizing demographic factors and data points that allow to: a) improve the quality/ delivery of content, and b) address advertiser needs and facilitate monetization
  • Better prioritization of time and resources by media leadership to only focus on the most impactful activities
  • Support internal development of media (i.a., audience analysis, social media managers) to ensure content produced effectively reaches audiences

Respondent demographics:

24 independent regional media outlets (from 18 out of 24 oblasts of Ukraine): Respondent media channels: 1 radio; 3 TV-channels; 7 newspapers; 23 websites.

Independence defined as having an independent editorial policy, no pressure from owner and no paid stories (“jeansa”).