Do You REALLY Know Your Digital Audience? The Data Might Surprise You.
Writers for niche websites often perch at their keyboards with a pre-conceived notion of who they're writing for: avid readers and returning visitors who want detailed info that borders on (and often outright embraces) fanaticism.
They might be wrong.
It turns out that publishers who take the time to understand the breadth and diversity of all their readers – not just their most vocal fans – will uncover new content opportunities and positioning strategies that can reach a broader audience. And if they respond accordingly, those publishers can attract more eyeballs and give all readers – hard-core and casual alike – the types of content they really want.
A longtime content editor, I learned this lesson in the years since our site, ScreenRant.com, which specializes in entertainment news, was acquired by our new owners, Valnet, in 2015. Later, we would apply the lessons we learned in the management of CBR.com (Comic Book Resources), which covers everything related to comic books and superhero fandom and was acquired by Valnet the following year. In short, we changed how we approach, create, promote and position our content to better serve all audiences.
Perceived Audience vs. Actual Audience
At the time of the acquisition, the Screen Rant writers, editors and producers spent a lot time creating content for the audience we thought we had: a perceived audience of exceptionally engaged movie, TV, and entertainment fans who visited our site directly or found us through Google.
But when we dug into the traffic patterns and analytics, we discovered that our actual audience was a much broader, more diverse, and yes, often less geeky audience than we thought. Direct website visitors, it turns out, represented only 10% of our traffic. Because we assumed they were representative of the bulk of our readership’s interests, we wrote to their hard-core desire for niche coverage. By doing so, we gave a pass to other entertainment subjects, themes, and ideas that might have attracted the attention of less-avid-but-still-interested fans who encountered our links on Google, Facebook, Twitter or blogs.
At the time, we relied on Facebook and Twitter as readily available platforms to re-post our web content, but we didn't pay much attention to the social media fans who were engaging with our content there, nor did we position it uniquely for our social channels. At the time Screen Rant was acquired by Valnet, only 5% of sessions from our 450,000 fans came from our cross-posted links on Facebook. Yes, our core site was growing, but in retrospect, we could have increased our user base and grown more rapidly had we paid attention to the actual audience across all channels, not just the perceived audience at our core.
The oversight meant we were missing traffic, time spent on site, and engagement from users we didn't even know we could capture.
Today, while traffic sources have increased across the board, Facebook now represents a percentage that is more reflective of its potential within our content ecosystem: 35% of all sessions. As a result of this success, we get to create even more content for our core readership – while also reaching out to new reader segments.
A similar evolution occurred at CBR.com, where data showed that editors and writers were busting their backs to write anything that would appeal to engrossed comic book fans, who made up about 30% of the site's visitors. It was great to service these passionate readers, but in the process, editors often overlooked the interests of casual comic book fans who might have clicked on an interesting Facebook post or discovered an engaging piece of content on Google.
Maybe these readers were looking for information about water-cooler chatter they heard at work about the latest superhero film – but they didn't need to debate every single detail. Those readers' interests were not being addressed as well as those of the core readership – even though they were higher in number. CBR wasn’t acting as a bridge between the fandom and pop culture, meaning the site wasn't providing much opportunity to help the uninitiated become invested in comic book culture – and it showed: On average, those readers spent less than a minute on the site, with bounce rates as high as 70%.
New Strategy Drives Results
When we updated the content strategy and paid attention to the entire audience, metrics improved and engagement levels actually rose. Engaged readers remained engaged, while casual visitors suddenly started clicking more and spending more time with our content, because it was clearer in speaking to their interests and expectations.
Today, the site's bounce rate for new users has dropped to 55% with an average dwell time of 2:30, while all users spend around 3:30 on the site, with a bounce rate of 45%. The result? Longer dwell times tell us that readers are consuming more of our content, and improved bounce rates increase both ad revenues and the quality of advertisers we can attract.
What did we do to solve the audience problem? Here's what the new digital content strategy looks like when both actual and perceived audiences are acknowledged:
- Editors and writers now pay attention to all readers – engaged and casual alike. They consciously factor in how all pieces of content should be written, optimized, and positioned for a diverse audience base and for different channels. Data from built-in tools influences content customization for different audiences, while custom source and medium-tracking metrics from Google Analytics tell us which articles perform best and where.
- Each article now contains different title fields, each one catering to the intended platform where it will be posted or shared. The same piece of content will be optimized differently for Google search results, the site's home page, online promotion, and social sharing on Facebook, Twitter or blogs. Writers and editors are encouraged to leverage and write the same content differently, depending on respective audiences and their different interests. A "spoiler" article, for example, might be held back from the home page but optimized for Google so that potential readers, who are actively searching for info about the spoiler, can find it easily via search – all without us unintentionally ruining a twist or reveal for users who would be upset if they encountered the same info on the homepage or Twitter.
- Editorial calendars are now planned with all audience members in mind, from the can't-get-enough-aficionados who want as much detail as possible, to casual fans who nevertheless want to click from Facebook and find something interesting enough to discuss with confidence at the gym or among friends.
Given the amount of data available about site traffic and user demographics, "know your audience" as standard operating procured doesn't sound all that difficult. But in reality, digital content can have several audiences, depending on readers' levels of interest and the amount (or lack of detail) they expect.
Digital content publishers are well-advised to question their ability to understand their actual audience. Because in reality, they might be overlooking various audiences who would be eager to engage with their articles, videos, and posts – if only the publishers could figure out who they are, where they're encountering content, as well as what they want to read and watch.