Audience Development Turns Visitors Into Regulars

Building a loyal following is about playing the long game.

Written by Hal Koss
Published on Nov. 11, 2020
Audience Development Turns Visitors Into Regulars

In the spring of 2014, the New York Times found itself backed into a corner. A leaked internal report detailed the Times’ struggle to adapt to the shifting digital landscape: Its homepage collected dust as readers increasingly discovered content through social media and search engines; its ambitious journalism was sometimes hung out to dry, published without any promotional strategy; and its social shares were dwarfed by those of digital upstarts like the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Gawker.

So it built an audience development team.

What Is Audience Development?

Audience development refers to the process of reaching new audiences and deepening connections with existing ones. It involves identifying audience behavior, optimizing content discovery and promotion, and converting one-off visitors into loyal followers.

Within two months of rolling out an audience development plan — which focused on implementing SEO and social media best practices across the newsroom and experimenting with newsletters — the Times saw its online readership jump 20 percent.

The lesson for marketers, not just publishers, is this: If you build it, an audience won’t necessarily come. Even if they do, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay on your site, or pay for whatever you’re selling. You need a plan for attracting and engaging audiences.

You need audience development.

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Audience Development 101: What Is It?

Identifying members of your audience, reaching them and finding ways to keep them coming back.


Audience development seeks to grow and sustain a dedicated community of users, first by identifying what content they want — and where they want it.

Any kind of valuable content will have an audience, by definition, but people are not going to find it by typing a homepage URL into their address bars. Social media, search engines, newsletters, events, podcasts and syndication outlets are the usual places where people get what they’re looking for. Companies need to calibrate content for these distribution channels.

“Your job is basically to be the touch point between [these channels] and the user,” Anna Escher, head of audience at Dfinity, told Built In. “It’s like a liaison between growth and the editorial team, ensuring that the audience is able to encounter the right content on the right channel at the right time.”

“It’s being a liaison between growth and the editorial team.”

Abby Sjoberg, audience development director at Away, has a similar take: “I’ve always treated audience development as [involving] newsletter, social, SEO, partnerships and a little bit of product management,” she told Built In.

Sjoberg joined Away from a global media company that monetized through ads and drove lots of site traffic from social media, which is where it invested its resources.

“It was all about scale,” Sjoberg said. “Social was huge. It drove a ton of traffic for us.”

Away’s strategy is different. Its aim is to cultivate a hyper-engaged audience through its travel magazine, Here, and create brand loyalty that translates into luggage purchases down the road. Sjoberg said she sees the most traction in search and newsletters, so Here allocates its attention accordingly.

“Crafting those strategies, and not necessarily chasing every single opportunity, has been challenging,” she said. “But at the end of the day, our audience will be our guide.”

“At the end of the day, our audience will be our guide.”

Indeed, growth is a primary goal of audience development — but practitioners view engagement as even more important.

Users who return to a site, share its content on social media and subscribe to its newsletters (and actually read them) are much more valuable than flyby visitors, even at a massive scale. They’re the diehards buying your paid products and championing your brand.

Building this type of audience is not easy though.

Read10 Do’s and Dont’s of Data-Driven Content Strategy


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Audience Development 201: How Do You Get It Right?

Combine content strategy, growth marketing and community management.


Before you can reach an audience, you have to know who’s in it. Audience development pros arm themselves with analytics tools to pinpoint whom they are reaching and what content types resonate most.

They may also do some qualitative research, asking their companies’ sales and customer service teams for insights, or including a survey in a newsletter, then organizing these insights into user personas.

Once they figure out who their audiences are, they might do one or more of the following.


Spend a Little Money

Sometimes the fastest way to get in front of new users — especially if a brand is building an audience from scratch — is to allocate a budget for paid advertising on search and social. Customer acquisition costs can quickly get out of control for competitive keywords though. So testing and monitoring several channels at once — eventually shutting down the inefficient ones and turning up the spigot on the ones producing high-quality, engaged users — is important.


Track Engagement Metrics Obsessively

No one’s ever complained about too much volume; it’s exciting to see website traffic grow over time. In some cases, though, monthly unique visitors may be a vanity metric.

“Chasing clicks” should only be the top priority if the monetization strategy calls for it. If a business’ sole revenue source is from the number of ad impressions it sells against content, going for pure volume makes some sense. (Arguably, even then, you have to consider tradeoffs between long-term brand equity and immediate page views.) In most cases, monitoring engagement metrics is more important.

“Engagement metrics are the most telling about your audience and what is resonating with them,” Escher said. “I would look at things like page views per visitor per referral source to see if the most engaged audiences were coming in from Google or Twitter or Facebook or something like that.”

“Engagement metrics are the most telling about your audience and what is resonating with them.”

These metrics also include time on page, bounce rate, pages per session and scroll depth. They all get at whether a user is spending quality time with the content, and tell a much fuller story than knowing a hundred more visitors popped on your site today. Audience development pros monitor loyalty data, too, tracking how often users return to their sites.

Keeping audiences active and coming back helps drive revenue, whether the business’ goal is to sell more ads, subscriptions, merchandise, ticketed events or some mix of the above. The more engaged the audience is, the more likely they are to make purchases and recommend that product or service to their networks.


Optimize for Search

When Escher led audience development at TechCrunch, she sliced and diced the data to uncover the various referral sources traffic came from, what devices readers were using and what topics tended to perform better on certain channels.

She discovered that Google was a huge growth driver for them. So she made sure the content was optimized for search (especially since Facebook had just stopped prioritizing publishers on its news feed algorithm).

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Audience development pros can accomplish this in a number of ways. One is doing keyword research and determining what queries or phrases the site’s audience is searching for and which ones its competitors rank for, and folding those insights into its editorial strategy. That may help its content start appearing high in search engine results pages.

Another is conducting technical and editorial SEO audits — learning how search engines are indexing the content, optimizing headlines and article layouts, fixing bugs and broken links. Search engine algorithms are a black box, but taking these steps are said to help increase the likelihood of getting content in front of the right audiences.


Get Strategic With Social

Audience development also prioritizes social media strategy, which extends far beyond the tropes of the “social media intern myth.” Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest are, for many audiences, a front door to a publisher’s content. Having an active presence on them helps stories reach their target audiences. Social media management tools can help.

Common tactics include contributing social media coverage of breaking news, surrounding promoted stories with tweet threads of additional context, producing social-only coverage (like reporting through a Facebook Live stream) and responding to comments on stories.

Additionally, audience development pros may optimize the headlines of social-friendly content so it plays well on social media channels, as well as test and optimize social-sharing buttons on all content pages.


Leverage Newsletters

For a while, newsletters had a reputation for being musty and quaint, like relics from the Web 1.0. But they’re back, providing a strategic way for publishers to regularly engage with audiences, promote and re-promote content, and even become part of users’ daily or weekly habits. The inbox is a coveted destination.

So newsletter growth is a huge focus. It’s viewed differently than website traffic, because someone who’s signed up for a newsletter has already taken action: They’ve shown that they like you and want to hear from you again.

A popular tactic for growing newsletter audiences is to strategically place newsletter sign-up widgets and CTAs to the newsletter landing page throughout your site, as well as automating a sign-up pop-up that’s triggered during multiple-page sessions on your site.

Even more important than the sheer quantity of newsletter subscribers, though, is the open rate, which measures how often subscribers are opening the emails. A higher open rate shows a more active audience that finds your content sticky.

Sending lots of newsletters that go unopened can harm deliverability too. Another reason that raw growth — at the neglect of high-quality subscribers — is overrated.

A higher open rate shows a more active audience that finds your content sticky.

Morning Brew, a media startup whose flagship product is a daily business newsletter, constantly measures and fine-tunes its email sends. Its growth team tests the subject lines each morning, sending four different versions to small batches of users; the subject line that garners the most opens gets sent to the remaining subscribers.

Morning Brew also relies on an aggressive referral program. Each subscriber is given a unique referral link, and the more friends they convince to sign up using their link, the better rewards they can unlock, ranging from stickers to pint glasses to sweatshirts.

The referral program doesn’t just bring in engaged users — “When a friend goes out of their way to recommend you check out a new product, you’re likely to give it an honest try,” Morning Brew’s director of growth, Jenny Rothenberg, wrote — it correlates with higher engagement for the people who do the referring.

Commitment to servicing the engaged readers helped Morning Brew sustain a 42 percent unique open rate as it scaled from half a million to two and a half million subscribers.


Syndicate and Re-Promote

In 2014, when the movie 12 Years a Slave was cleaning up at the Oscars, the New York Times tweeted out a link to its 161-year-old article covering the true story upon which the film is based. The article, originally published in 1853, then went viral. What went even more viral? Gawker’s summary of that article.

It was then that the Times knew it had to be ahead of the curve in repackaging and re-promoting its archival content for new audiences.

Re-promoting content isn’t tacky; it’s not like retweeting yourself. Reuters has employed people specifically to find, repackage and republish old, underperforming stories. Sometimes these stories don’t find the right audience the first time around, but that doesn’t mean they have to be relegated to a dustbin.

An adjacent strategy to re-promotion is syndication, which involves cross-posting content on a third-party site. It may be a strategic way for a publisher to introduce itself to new audiences, with the ultimate goal of driving traffic back to its site.

For example, each issue of the Big Technology newsletter, written by tech journalist Alex Kantrowitz, is syndicated to Medium’s tech publication, OneZero. It’s an arrangement that allows for both the independent writer and the publisher to expand into each other’s audiences.


Let Data Inform Editorial

Before the Times established an audience development team in 2014, the various functions operated in silos — the newsroom ran Twitter, the business side ran Facebook, the insights team handled analytics and SEO fell under the purview of product. Naturally, data that revealed an end-to-end view of the funnel and story creation weren’t shared either.

This siloing effect contributed to an incident in which a series of articles that took a year to produce was published without any promotional strategy behind it. (The reporter didn’t even mention it on Twitter for another two days.) It still performed well enough, the Times said, but some staffers wondered how much more impactful the series’ reach would have been had it been boosted by a promotional and distribution plan.

Promotion flubs aside, there’s also a temptation among newsrooms to shield reporters from analytics — the focus should be on producing quality writing, the logic goes. However, data-driven feedback may be helpful in building “muscle memory” of what sort of content resonates with audiences.

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