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What’s coming in 2023: We’ll work smarter and harder for audience growth by getting closer to them

Icons for social media on a smart phone. Photo by Dole777 on Unsplash
Publishers will need to adapt to changes in social media and at Google in 2023 and update their audience development playbooks. Photo by Dole777 on Unsplash

In the Pugpig weekly media bulletin, Pugpig’s consulting services director Kevin Anderson distills some of the best strategies and tactics that are driving growth in audiences, revenue and innovation at media businesses around the world.

The great (social) media re-shuffling

I’m usually pretty jaded about end-of-year predictions, but this year does feel like the end of something and the beginning of something new. 2022 began as the social media platforms that had dominated globally – Twitter and Meta’s many properties, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – faced competition from TikTok. For traditional media, Facebook and Twitter, to a lesser extent, used to be able to drive tremendous amounts of traffic. However, those formerly easy sources of traffic have been fading for years.

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Earlier in the year, Facebook’s daily active users fell for the first time in its 18-year history. And Chartbeat reported an almost 18% drop in traffic from Facebook to sites in its network beginning May 2021. The drop was particularly significant for sites in North America.

And of course, Twitter has descended into its own daily soap opera as Elon Musk finally took over the company. Advertisers and users have fled. And while Twitter has always been popular amongst journalists, for many sites that cover subjects outside of politics and sports, it has never been a tremendous traffic driver.

TikTok seems the heir apparent as the world’s fastest growing social network. However, this is not just a changing of the social media guard. Nieman Lab’s end-of-year predictions for 2023 have a theme running through them: the end of platforms. They describe a high state of flux and the possibility for something much more decentralised than what came before.

More than that though, we’re in a moment when the old guard ends but who or what takes over isn’t entirely clear. Ben Werdmuller, the CTO of The 19th, is right when he says that the Internet is up for grabs. He says:

For newsroom audience teams, this kaleidoscope of options represents a new challenge: given a limited set of time, people, and resources, how can you best decide which platforms to bet on? (Here’s a hint: it’s not going all-in on vertical video.

Obviously, he doesn’t think TikTok will be the next winner to take it all, especially when we’ve seen the success of inbox blogging aka newsletters and podcasts, but this year will be one of checking referrals and tweaking distribution playbooks as audiences scatter to new platforms.

We’ve been here before, and change is the norm for digital media. The portal period gave way to the rise of search and the dominance of Google. After the dot.com crash, the economic march of the early internet was upended and things were in flux. That gave rise to the Web2.0 decentralised period when build your own sites and blogs were ascendent with their DIY, “small pieces loosely joined” ethos connected by RSS and distributed commenting. It appealed to technologists, makers and experimental media folks. It was the first wave of a creator economy but one that bears little resemblance to solopreneurs and influencers now. But most people don’t want to be creators and simply wanted a way to easily connect with friends and converse, which fuelled the rise of centralised public conversations on Facebook and Twitter. However, commercialising those conversations encouraged a pivot back into the more private spaces of messaging apps.

The fraught symbiosis of the existing platforms and media is over or probably more accurately we’ll have new players in a new act of this drama. But playbooks will have to be written for audience development. For a while, platforms gave us easy access to audiences, even if those connections were weak and our brands were diluted in the flood of the feed. Successful media brands have been working to strengthen their relationship with their audiences over the last few years, and this social media reshuffling opens up new opportunities to lean into that work.

Big changes at Google this year

And 2023 will bring changes at Google as well, although these are clearer and better documented, which gives you information on how to plan. For a lot of media brands, as social media has waned as a traffic source, search has become a much bigger and more reliable source of traffic. As we mentioned last week, Google is evaluating content based on “expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T)” for inclusion in such products as Discover. Google introduced the concept in 2014. It usually tweaks its EAT criteria about once a year, according to SEO tool vendor SEMRush, and it just updated the guidelines on 15 December. The most recent update added an extra E for experience, Google said. If you’ve got extra time over the holidays, you can leaf through the 175-page guide that search quality raters use. Search quality raters are people who evaluate sites to help keep Google’s algorithms up to date and effective. If you don’t have time or the desire to read through such a guide, Google has created a self-assessment guide so that you can review your own content to see how it scores. And they also explain how EAT relates to Google services like Discover, which as we have seen with a number of Pugpig clients can drive a lot of traffic.

But I am burying the lead (or lede). The big change this year will come on 1 July, when Google’s Universal Analytics stops processing new data. The Google Analytics that is familiar to many will be replaced by its successor GA4. Google has a list of essential migration steps on its site plus a much more detailed migration guide. The key differences between UA and GA4, according to a good overview on The Drum, are:

It will be a pretty major change, but after a period of adjustment, it will provide you with much richer data to inform your decisions.

Lean into owning the relationship with your audience

Thinking about all of the conversations that we had during the research for our State of the Digital Publishing Market report and these trends, what stands out is that publishers are getting closer to their audiences. And publishers are keen to make sure that they own their customer data and the relationships with their audiences. Also, newsletters, podcasts, apps and push notifications are all tactics that publishers are using to engage audiences. It means that the ructions in social media aren’t as disruptive as they once were when a change in business strategy or algorithm at a platform could cause stomach-churning drops in traffic and revenue.

And the pivot to audience revenue through subscriptions and memberships has meant a sharper focus on products, a better return on quality content and a steady complement to advertising revenue. However, we are hearing from many of you that you’re eager to hear about how to continue growing your subscriber base.

One way to do that is to really understand your users’ needs, says Ariel Zirulnick, the senior editor for community engagement at Southern California Public Radio. What is a user needs framework? Dmitry Shishkin and the BBC World Service audience development team developed a user needs framework several years ago. They found six needs their users had: update me; keep me on trend; give me perspective; educate me; inspire me and divert me. They tracked the number of pieces of content that they created for each need and the average pageviews for each piece of content. They used this data to adjust the mix of the articles and also their approach to serving these needs. Not unsurprisingly for a global news organisations, their output over-indexed for update me content. And as they adjusted their output and their approach, they were able to see positive outcomes based on their new content mix, particularly with increases in the average pageviews KPI.

Ariel believes that this work can be taken further. In her end of the year predication for Nieman Lab, she said:

In 2023, we will become deeply curious about our audience members. We’ll research not just how and why people read and listen to our journalism, but how they spend their days, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what kind of information they are seeking, either knowingly or unknowingly.

Where does our content fit into their lives? What problems are they trying to solve or jobs are they trying to do? As Ariel says, it helps get beyond explicit needs to the realm of implicit needs, which are harder to uncover but will highlight new ways to weave what we do into people’s lives.

When it comes to your quantitative data, she laid out a methodical approach. Once you’ve identified your audiences’ needs, you can tag your content based on those needs and track the performance of stories that meet those different needs and adjust the mix of content as necessary, as the BBC World Service did. Her next step is to analyse the different channels that drive traffic to content related to different user needs, providing you with a sense of how to tweak your distribution strategy was well as you content.

The next step thought is add the rich of qualitative data with user research. As I often say, quantitative data can tell you what people are doing while qualitative data tells you why they are doing it. Moreover, quantitative data gives you information about your current audience, while you also want to know about growth opportunities outside of your current audience.

2023 will bring lots of changes, but it will also bring new opportunities. If you want to discuss how to take advantage of these changes by leveraging user research or user needs audience development, get in touch with Pugpig Consulting Services at info@pugpig.com.

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