Sometimes "Audience Growth" and "Audience Engagement" are used interchangeably - especially in job and team titles - but they are far from the same thing. This is not just semantics. How you describe a role has a profound role on how that role operates.
What would the journalism world look like if we started taking "audience engagement" really seriously, rather than treating it as a more fluffy way of saying "driving traffic growth"? That's what — in most cases — what the social media editor role became, and that was a distinct step backwards from the "community editor" roles that preceded it.
Did we lose something on the way?
I started down this line of thinking because two things happened in quick succession. First of all, I did a day's in-house SEO training which reminded me quite how rooted in print thinking so much of our publishing strategy still is. Deep search strategy requires you to think about your audience's on-going information needs and how to facilitate that. And that's a very different model from just trying to ride the attention wave from the latest breaking news story. You have to engage with the readers to understand how they consume information, rather than just telling them what's new.
I also started think about why journalists should remain on Facebook, in light of everything we know now, after reading Mathew Ingram's post on the subject. And, as I touched on in my own blog post, I realised that we could be there for very different reasons than just audience growth:
That raises another — and possibly more important — question. Should we change our approach? What if we engaged with Facebook purely as a corrective force, rather than in search of traffic? How would that change our approach — and what could we achieve as an industry then?
Let's dig into that idea a bit more deeply.
Journalism is not an abstract art. It's a service, one provided to readers, and funded through a range of models. The growth of traffic is not, in of itself, useful. Yes, you need a sustainable audience. And yes, it can help deliver the revenue you need to sustain a product, but raw numbers aren't the only way to do that. And if the last few years have taught us anything, it's that sometimes the biggest drivers of numbers are the publishers who are least wedded to the truth — and, ironically, those most driven to create engagement.
Let's acknowledge the fact that we're hampered in our mission to inform the public because the tools we tend to use to reach them are more easily exploited by those with no attachment to the truth as a valuable concept. At a psychological level, people respond more strongly to their prejudices and existing beliefs being confirmed than they them being challenged.
There's a deep asymmetry to the information warfare on social media. We fight with truth, but we're also desperate for reach, because our business problems are so immense. The disinformation merchants get reach really easily, as they can produce pandering, fact-lite (or fact-free) content that triggers engagement by appealing to people's prejudices and emotional weaknesses. We can't beat them at their own game, but equally, we can't just bring fact-checking to this fight, because they're plenty of evidence that the fact-check travels so much less far than the original inaccurate information.
(I'm reminded of the infamous — and completely made up — Sun headline "Freddie Starr ate my hamster". Complete fiction, that haunted the star for the rest of his life. )
How do we short circuit this loop?
The clue is in the name
Audience engagement means just that: engaging with the audience. A Facebook group where the journalists are never seen is not audience engagement. It might be community development (at a push), but it's certainly not engaging an audience meaningfully.
How do you counter people's natural inclination to reject information that doesn't reinforce their existing world view? By building relationships with them. We are more likely to be converted to a viewpoint by a person we trust, and whose viewpoints we are prepared to listen to, than we are by a faceless brand. Trust lies more deeply in people than in institutions.
Imagine a world where journalists truly engaged with their audience. They engaged in reasoned debate, and explained their thinking. Where readers began to get a sense that they could talk with journalists, and inform their decision-making. Where journalists were no longer a remote elite, but part of people's everyday online social interactions.
This is not quite as mythic as it sounds.
Truly engaged journalism
A decade ago, back when I was working for Reed Business, I had one of the most journalistically fulfilling experiences of my life. Another wave of Foot and Mouth disease had hit the country, and I worked to support the Farmers Weekly team with their community management around the event. At the time we were principally using blogs and forums, but were experimenting with social media.
What resulted was a process of dialogue with the readers, where they expressed both what they knew - and also what they needed to know. We amplified what they told out, and used our skills and access to find out what they needed to know. The journalism happened in partnership with the audience, rather than just at them. This is what engaged journalism really looks like.
True, this doesn't necessarily scale easily or quickly. But it doesn't need to. Even the biggest titles are built out of multiple sub-niches and communities. Start small, start slowly, start sub-community by sub-community but start actually engaging. By starting to use social media as a social tool rather than a broadcast one, could we start rebuilding the trust we've squandered in recent years?
Agree? Disagree? Hit "reply" and let me know!
See you tomorrow for the next dose of interesting links.
This tweet (and linked feature) pretty much sums up how I feel about the internet these days…
Still, we can still be optimistic, right?