What do niche publications understand about their audiences’ attention, that generalized publications don’t?

There’s an arrogance in newsrooms which needs addressing.

It’s nothing to do with ego. It doesn’t have anything to do with personality.

While newsrooms are undoubtedly exploring alternative approaches to both financing and producing content, there are other sectors who are doing the same – and doing it damn successfully. Trade magazines, lifestyle blogs and special interest publications might operate in a different sphere to those in the current affairs realm, but there’s interesting stuff emanating from those areas. 

Just this week, Rasmus Klein Nielson noted that “international brands like the New York Times report that exclusive stories, well-reported investigations, and original angles are among the key drivers of loyalty and subscriptions”. That’s good to hear. Quality niche content that resonates with readers which is proving to reap financial reward (at least in part), is very reassuring indeed.

But, in Jeff Jarvis‘ most recent post outlining his current ‘worries’ for the industry he notes that – at the same paper – there was “an apparent unwillingness to hear outside critics”. That may have referenced a specific issue (the Unity vs Racism headline “debacle”, as Jarvis terms it), but the underlying message rings clear: as criticisms mount on issues like this, is there a danger – or tendency – to double down, inward facing and shut out voices from outside? Perhaps that’s an overstatement. Perhaps it isn’t.

But, by keeping the conversation about how to cover events within the realm of the news sector, as opposed to the wider content creation community, is it just possible that we’re denying ourselves some pretty bombastic learning opportunities?

*whispers* Yes. Yes, we are.

Specialized content (or, why niche is nice)

Think of specialized content, and you’d be right to cite special-interest or single-issue magazines or publications, which deal with a narrow range of subject matter. Readers of these publications read them because they have a specific interest in something.

Although it’s never this simple, really it should be this straightforward: if you run a publication about – let’s say – British folk music, you’ve already identified the point of common interest, the editorial lynchpin, if you like.

You should have the makings of a loyal readership. After all, there are few other publications dealing with that specialism, right? So, if you’re measuring loyal behavior and that starts to fall away, you should worry. So, while ‘niche’ implies a degree of limitation, there’s a huge upside here as well: the publication’s identity should have a solid foundation.

As a benchmark, let’s make a very, very crude comparison. The Guardian has a reported digital readership which has recently surpassed one million readers a day. The Financial Times announced it had surpassed one million readers (what counts as a ‘reader’ isn’t clear) earlier this year. British movie publication Empire has a reach (whatever that means) of 828,000. Meanwhile – and also in the UK – the wedding planning blog, Rock My Wedding has 230,000 readers, according to its website.

While there’s a question of exactly what constitutes a ‘reader’ here, these numbers are interesting. That’s a lot of large pockets of readers about the place. A lot of people wanting to read about the stock markets, movies and how to plan a wedding. Let no one say these niches aren’t worth trying to cater for.

The Local is an example we’re familiar with. Their niche – aimed at English speaking expats living in Sweden – has been so successful that the model has been rolled out elsewhere in Europe. None of these sites are a carbon copy of the first, but there are indications of things that will work across borders (how to deal with unfamiliar taxation systems, navigate elections, rent a place to live).

So, yes. Niche is nice. And – to stretch the accepted use of the English language – the niche-ier, the nicier.

Every publication has a personality

That said, describing content as ‘specialized’ or ‘niche’ is a slight misnomer. It’s unlikely that content is ever going to resonate with everyone, so the question really should be what kind of niche are your readers? Can they be grouped into political silos? Are they issue based? Interest based? United by geography?

In London, The Times’ readership is politically different to that of The Guardian’s, just as it’s again different from The Telegraph’s. All three are daily broadsheets. All have a balance of current affairs, analysis and comment. The scope of each is broad, but each paper’s readers are quite a specific demographic. You’re unlikely to find a reader who would switch between The Telegraph and The Guardian, though it’s conceivable that either might pick the The Times at a push.

The point is that even the papers with the highest circulation and the biggest reach have their own personalities. It’s hard to put it better than Jim VandeHei, the co-founder of Politico who said in an interview recently “the audience may be huge, but it is by no means general”.

At a time when the issue of monetization is enough to get even the most unflappable editor reaching for the nearest mindfulness app, where these more hyper-specialized publications have an advantage is in the fact that they’re speaking to a narrow interest group. If you’re a stockbroker in London, The FT is your trade publication. You’re going to need it for work. You’re going to be prepared to pay for it. If you’re working on it, you’re going to know what your readers need. 

If you’ve got a neatly defined user base with a real need for your content, it is never going to be as hard to try and sell that content. It’s why if you’re comparing success with subscriptions it isn’t fair or useful to compare The FT with a publication like The Daily Mail

Liberated by a typically narrow ‘interest’, these publishers have maybe had more time to think about different kinds of content, and different approaches to publishing it in a way that bolsters engaged and loyal behavior.

Local, insider knowledge

In London, Culture Trip has just launched a travel booking portal. The website – an online travel Filofax for the 21st century – has been regarded as the place to get information about destinations since it started in 2015, but it’s predicated on a simple philosophy which underpins everything they do: their readers want to travel like locals, not tourists. Content too must fulfill a simple proviso, as CCO, Dmitry Shishkin tells me: “the content that we do has to tick at least two boxes: cover travel through a cultural lens, and culture through a travel lens.” It’s a laser-like focus.

Just as their target demographic (millennials, in case you were wondering) isn’t interested in ticking off tourist destinations, so too is this search for something more unique evident in the kind of content they produce. They’ve taken cues from their user behavior to know that publishing a ‘5 things to do in London this summer’ article isn’t going to be as valuable to their readership as tips that make their readers feel like they’re walking in the footsteps of incognito locals. Here’s Dmitry again.

“Our job is to say, ‘if you want to go to the London Eye, our recommendation is to go at sunset because that’s when you’ll get the best shot of London. Don’t bother going at 11 o’clock in the morning because everything will be in mist and you won’t see the whole city’. It’s about those ‘classic with a twist’ stories, where you always put an interesting local or cultural lens onto everything that you say.”

Dmitry was hired into Culture Trip from the BBC World Service, where he was one of their Digital Editors. Part of his work there was to reappraise the way that local BBC hubs told news stories and part of this meant running workshops with editorial teams across the globe. A favorite exercise there was based around brainstorming user needs. “You’d have twenty minutes to brainstorm six user needs,” he tells me. “I’d tell people to forget about ‘update me’, because that’s basically [always been] covered, but asked them instead to go away and come up with five different versions of the story.”

For his World Service team, it was a valuable tool to think about relaying international news that might not be of direct interest or importance to people reading in Nairobi or Jakarta (he gives the example of the Macron election win), but to nevertheless do so in a way that resonated somehow. 

These results were very positive indeed: “what we have seen through data is that those individual pieces written from a user needs perspective outperform regular pieces by several times.”

Putting the user, not the newsroom, first

So, what exactly are these hallowed user needs he talks about? There’s more about that in an article he penned over at LinkedIn, but in quick summation:

  1. Update me
  2. Give me perspective
  3. Educate me
  4. Keep me on trend
  5. Amuse me
  6. Inspire me

Most newsrooms, he argues, have a tendency to focus predominately on the first. But, with ‘updates’ freely available from various breaking news portals – think Twitter, BBC, to name a few – it’s hard to see how readers, already strapped for time and drowning in subscription requests, would see that kind of content as a valuable way to spend their hard earned cash.

In Nairobi, a solution to relaying the Macron win was to create a story based on his youth, turning it into a profile featuring other young, dynamic leaders past and present. 

Would these six user needs work for any publication? Within the current affairs sphere, probably, says Shishkin, but others have taken the approach back to their non-news organizations and made it work there through applying their own analysis. He cites Vogue as a place where it’s been employed successfully.

At the core is the simple belief that “you have to start with the audience and you have to listen to them”. 

When we talk about engagement journalism, we often talk about getting readers involved in the process of deciding what needs covering, but specialized publications like Culture Trip remind us that paying attention to how they’re being covered is critical too. 

Niche or not, it’s vital now that readers find value in the content that publishers publish. Whether you’re operating on a reader-revenue model, or one based on ad revenue, quality engagement with articles is essential.

Building an audience, not traffic

Knowing your reader means growing with your reader, too. The aforementioned Rock My Wedding has, since it started as a one-woman blog back in 2009, morphed a sister site, Rock My Style.

That was savvy.

Those at the helm recognized the fact that once weddings have been planned, life takes an often predictable trajectory and information, guidance and eye candy on homes, families and fashion are likely to appeal to their readership – especially if its presented in the same style wrapper. Their goal with retention was to ensure their audience is met where they are, at the stage of life they’re at. What’s interesting here too is that many of the company’s staff, started as featured brides on the original site.

So, there’s a progression here that makes a compelling narrative, quite aside from the content itself: authors’ work can often be traced back to a very personal moment in their lives, shared. As a reader this can be quite compelling. It’s another way to build trust – though admittedly not something that could be replicated in other organizations.

Producing content for your audience means publishing things that do more than simply ‘update’ them

Fostering a connection with the author as well as the publication is critical. When Culture Trip write about insider tips about where to visit, they’re often framed as you would give a personal recommendation: where there’s a story or anecdote to accompany the suggested eatery, or landmark, or hotel, it’s given. After all, if you’re asked for a recommendation, your suggestion is likely to come wrapped up in the narrative of your experience there. In a travel setting that works well: it demonstrates trust, but also gives an air of being in the know. And, what all this speaks to is reader loyalty. It’s something we talk about a lot here, because it’s hard to achieve and therefore incredibly precious.

“Everybody is really tired of people who come, read one story and never come back in a month,” says Dmitry. “This isn’t an audience, this is just traffic.”

Building an audience is always a challenging proposition, but there is an advantage in courting a niche market: you already share something that’s important to you. Whether that interest is motivated by work or by leisure, there’s a reason your readers want to read you. 

But, even if you’re not working for a publication with a niche, quirky or otherwise, that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be taken from those that do. What these publications have had the luxury to learn is that working from a reader-first perspective doesn’t have to mean a consultation about subject matter, but can also be about the delivery mechanism. It also means searching for the underlying reasons that people are seeking out your content.

Producing content for your audience means publishing things that do more than simply ‘update’ them. There are more ways we can speak to our readers – and we must. Using a user needs approach strengthens your position (and chances of success pre-publication), and a robust approach to monitoring that success helps to track that success once that ‘publish’ button has been depressed.

 

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