Build a community, not an audience: find out what your readers value and want to pay for

From subscriptions to membership and donation models, media companies are increasingly looking to get their audiences involved in paying for journalism they consume.

But unless you understand what your readers need, you cannot know what they are willing to pay for.

At our latest Newsrewired conference, four speakers shared tips on building communities, developing meaningful publisher-audience relationships and using an audience persona to better connect with the reader.

“Focus on relationships and measure engagement”

“First of all, build a media community, not an audience,” said newsroom leadership consultant James Breiner. “Focus on relationships, not scale, and measure engagement, not page views.”

His three-point model aims to change how publishers and companies view their audience.

“A media community is a group of loyal users who share an interest in a particular topic or geographic area, or they may share language or ethnicity and they likely share certain values and ethics.

“The other thing is that a community is active, it’s not passive like the big online audience that you might have. A community can be mobilised to accomplish things for everybody’s benefits.”

To appreciate what your readers, viewers or listeners value, you must really understand who they are. But giving the same weight to your loyal users and the fly-bys can set you on the wrong path.

“A loyal audience is the small group of people who are really connected to your content, who really value the product that you’re creating; and this might be 10 per cent of the big total of users who you have every month.” Crucial to this effort is creating events and opportunities for people to feel part of the community and the news publishing process.

A community can be mobilised to accomplish things for everybody’s benefits.

James Breiner

To measure engagement, Breiner recommends looking at three metrics: frequency of visits, amount of time spent on the site per visit, and the level of interaction.

He suggested that at least ten visits per month signal a loyal user while remaining on the site for three minutes, and looking at three pages per visit, is another sign of strong engagement .

His last tip for publishers is to “really listen to your audience, what are their problems, what are they feeling and how can you engage with them.”

Audience persona

Irene McKisson is co-founder and principal executive of non-profit news and community organisation Arizona Luminaria. She previously spent 18 years at the local paper Arizona Daily Star where her most recent responsibility was creating a vertical called #ThisIsTucson.

To launch this new product that aimed to inform readers about things to do in and around Tucson, McKisson and her team created an audience persona based on surveys and interviews with users. 

“Our team of three went through 25 one-on-one interviews and we listed out on sticky notes everything we knew to be true about the readers that we talked to. By the end of the interviewing experience we could predict how they were going to answer that question,” she said.

The team then divided those insights into categories like, for example, social platforms. They found out that most of the readers were on Facebook and Instagram but not on Twitter, so they scraped the Twitter account, saving precious time and resources. Another category was news values and readers expressed their desire to see more local stories.

They found out that people were getting news from push alerts on their phones so they built an app that allowed them to do just that.

The audience research also uncovered that people trusted their friends and were not keen on “that kind of newspaper didactic tone”, so the journalists could tailor their tone and voice to this audience need.

All this helped the team create a persona they named Jessica, who “embodied the reader” they were trying to reach. Everyone on the team knew Jessica, which helped the newsroom create a strong audience-led platform.

Having this persona allowed the team to be consistent with their voice, news judgement and branding and marketing, which contributed to the success of the project.

Work out how to address your user needs

Tortoise is a UK-based slow news company built on three key principles: slow news, open journalism and quality over quantity. The second, open journalism, includes ThinkIns and Open News meetings which allow their community to be part of the editorial process. 

Tortoise‘s head of growth Edmund Davison said that the editorial team now focuses on one lead investigation per week, published as an audio piece, after finding out that multiple long-reads did not sit well with their audience under 40 which makes up more than half of their readers.

This brought in another problem. While audio content was made available on Tortoise’s app, subscribers wanted to listen on their preferred platforms like Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Tortoise turned this into an audience-revenue opportunity. Paying members can now listen to the latest episode on the publisher’s app on Monday, ad-free, while non-paying listeners have to wait until Friday to access the piece with ads on other platforms. Early access and ad-free listening proved to be strong incentives for users to subscribe.

Embrace the try-and-fail approach

Esther Alonso, membership and development director for, highlighted the importance of experimenting when tailoring your news product to your audience needs.

The main goal for is to reconnect journalism with society and the publication has achieved 50 per cent of income from memberships since its launch. The average revenue per user for the company is €6,82 (£5.77), and they now have a total of 61,400 members, 15,700 free members and 212,000 registered users.

The membership growth has been constant but not linear. The site saw influxes of subscribers after publishing important investigations and scoops which confirmed that the readers value exclusives and high-quality journalism.

The constant audience growth and very high retention rate (less than 1 per cent of subscribers cancel) also mean that the publication must constantly innovate. The subscriptions market in Spain is getting more crowded so the competition for paying users is becoming tougher.

Another challenge is to attract and retain an audience worn down by intense news consumption during the pandemic, meaning that needs to think creatively about new ways to publish stories. 

To constantly innovate, the team embraced a try-and-fail approach, which came with its fair share of unsuccessful projects. For instance, the publication launched a sports section that it had to close down just after three months as it simply did not chime with the readers. For Alonso, this experience underlined the importance of listening and learning from your readers.

Picture credit: Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

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