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Audience engagement at hybrid-model digital media houses: Tips from Scroll

2022-01-01. Scroll, one of the first purely-digital media outlets in India, follows a hybrid business model that includes reader revenue, advertising, donations and more. Karnika Kohli, growth manager at ScrollStack, believes this makes audience engagement very different for Scroll compared to those who follow a single model.

by Elizabeth Shilpa elizabeth.shilpa@wan-ifra.org | January 1, 2022

“For us, audience engagement is not just limited to social media,” Kohli said speaking at WAN-IFRA’s 12-part webinar series in association with the Meta Journalism Project.

“It is also about how we present ourselves on the site, what our user interface looks like, how we perform on Google, how our SEO looks like, how we present our stories on Facebook, how we engage with our contributors or supporters and more,” she added.

Run by a small team, Scroll has about 10 million unique users every month. More than 10 percent of them are coming from the United States.

According to Kohli, the publisher has almost 8,000 recurring India and international subscriptions. The average contribution Scroll sees is Rs 3,000 (around US$ 40), which is more than double the average media subscription cost in India.

Scrolls’s business model mainly comprises subscriptions, contributions, their brand studio, which focuses on high-end advertising, programmatic advertising and journalism grants.

“You need to build your brand in such a way that it feels like an extension to your readers’ lifestyle. That’s what we aspire to be,” Kohli said, elaborating on Scroll’s six-pronged audience engagement strategy.

Intuitive user interface

A very intuitive user interface is a really big part of Scroll’s audience engagement strategy. Kohli works with all the departments including marketing, tech and editorial to collect inputs that help in making the readers’ experience better.

A crucial insight on providing a seamless experience to the reader came from another mediahouse – the BBC, she said.

“A couple of years ago the BBC shortened the length of their paragraphs. This led to around 30 percent increase in traffic,” she said.

“When you think about it, it doesn’t feel like a really big thing. But we work a lot on making sure that when someone comes to our website they have a seamless experience, be it on mobile or desktop. We rely a lot on audience feedback, and we do get a lot of it. We try to implement as many of those changes as we can,” Kohli added.

Strong ground reportage and packaging

According to Kohli, one of Scroll’s strengths that sets it apart is its hardcore ground reportage. She noted that every month, at least five of Scroll’s top 10 links are actual ground reports.

“When we do ground reports we talk about it in a very different way. We don’t just say these things are happening. We actually explain to the audience what it takes to do a ground report,” Kohli said.

In a landscape like India where there is still some hesitancy to pay for news, it is crucial to explain how Scroll is making a difference, she said. Therefore, the team engages the audience a lot around that by packaging the ground reportage.

“Now we do reporting serieses. Before every series we go live and announce it on social media. We do special newsletters. And we have seen a great response to that,” said Kohli, noting that people who sign up for specific things like special newsletters are more likely to become readers and engage with the team.

“We write to our contributors and to people who engage with us regularly and tell them this is what we are doing, this is what we have been up to and we would like to engage. That has really changed the way we interact with the audience. I set aside at least five hours a week just to respond to people’s emails,” Kohli said.

Culture and sports writing

Kohli noted that instead of the usual stories about celebrities or their Instagram posts, Scroll has always tried to do deeper, more detailed and meaningful stories around culture and sports.

According to Kohli, this has helped the publisher to find a different kind of audience, who loves to read about these things in-depth.

“In a bigger organisation, you publish content for your reader. But here, we publish our journalism and then we have to look for people who are interested in it and figure out a way to pitch it to people who feel that this might be an interesting read. So, with us, everything is built around the journalism we do and who our audience is,” she said.

Product innovations

For media houses like Scroll, the role of the audience is very much central to the newsroom. This makes product innovation of paramount importance.

“We make a lot of changes product wise – small or big. It can be as small as a small change in our top navigation bar, but that could lead to a massive increase in our traffic. Or it can be as big as how our whole page looks,” Kohli said.

Evolving subscriptions and contributions strategy

Most of the audience engagement initiatives at Scroll finally converge towards one goal – perfecting its subscriptions and contribution model.

Although Kohli feels the “journalism is dying” pitch works to an extent with readers, the Scroll team tries to not move in that direction. Instead it focuses more on what it does differently and what it is bringing into the market that others are not. Scroll does several engagement activities around this.

“We are right now planning a lot of in-person events with our contributors and subscribers to give them a glimpse behind how Scroll functions. We often do interaction sessions with our reporters because a lot of people have a lot of questions about how someone chooses a story or certain aspects of a story,” Kohli said.

Email newsletters

According to data published by Pew Research Center in July 2021, news sites across the world have seen a dip in average time spent in the past two years. However, contradicting this trend, Scroll has seen an increase of more than 6 percent.

One of the publisher’s strategies to get its readers to spend more time with its journalism is newsletters. According to Kohli, Scroll’s daily newsletters perform better than the industry average worldwide.

Before launching a newsletter that has since become one of Scroll’s best performers, Kohli, along with a former colleague, created a Google form. It was circulated among thousands of people, feedback was collected and based on that, the newsletter was created.

“We do care more about time spent than page views and sessions. I feel time spent is a better metric to say whether people are reading your journalism and if they think it has some sort of value instead of just coming in and leaving,” Kohli said.

Factoring in audience engagement in advertising

“Most people wonder how advertising would factor into audience engagement. But we don’t want to just do advertisements or just publish ads,” she said.

This is where Scroll’s brand studio comes in with an increased focus on storytelling. Thanks to this strategy, a recent Volkswagen brand studio ad with the focus on the car’s safety aspects, was one of the top stories on the Scroll website that month.

“Ads that don’t ruin the reader’s experience are what we look at. We focus on storytelling around high value goods instead of scale,” Kohli said.

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