In case you have not yet been introduced to the User Needs model, it is a base for a content strategy where each editorial piece satisfies a certain audience need. News needs, identified by audience research, are divided into groups, each serving a distinct purpose: factual, contextual, and emotional.
The original news needs model was introduced in 2016 by the BBC (where I was lucky enough to have been its key enforcer and evangelist). The model offered six distinct needs: Update me, Keep me on Trend, Educate me, Give me Perspective, Inspire me and Divert me.
Since then other media have developed their own User Needs models. I have collected at least 15 similar models – on international, national, regional, local as well as niche levels. User needs discussions are happening worldwide, and if your newsroom has not been exposed to the thinking, let this be a start.
In this piece, I am sharing a few answers to the most frequent questions I get about the approach. (Seriously, though, if you have not heard about news needs before, some recommended reading for you here, here, here and here).
Can my newsroom be effective without a user needs model?
A short answer is no, unless you are a really dominant player covering all sorts of beats and verticals equally effectively for a dedicated, loyal audience. You don’t see that many of these types around though. Even arguably the most successful digital player of them all, The New York Times, seems to also have a nascent news needs model appearing in their latest investor deck (although it can do with some extra work, too).
Publishers who do or have experimented with user needs models include WSJ, BuzzFeed, Vogue, The Conversation, Vox, The Atlantic, Mediahuis, DPG Media, and TRT. Some, though, preferred not to make their models public.
News needs strategy is central to your product-market fit – if you don’t know yourself, how can you prioritise anything properly? As Stratechery’s Ben Thompson once wrote, success on digital comes if a media is operating between the axis of ‘focus’ and ‘quality’, yet not many are. This is where we, as a sector, can learn so much more from our product colleagues, who have been user-centric from the birth of their discipline.
Publishers who utilise the model become more effective. Those that don’t tend to drift and produce a lot of content that goes straight into a (digital) wastebasket. I wrote recently here about the effects a user needs model has had on one of the BBC newsrooms, five years after it was introduced.
Aren’t user needs directly correlated with topics?
Sometimes I hear that somehow some topics are more equal than others. For example, politics must always be about the five whys. Well, it depends on your media’s role in the market, and, crucially, your ability to play the role you claim to have.
For example, you may call yourself a business and economy publication, but only 20% of the pieces are about the subject, while the rest is about anything but. When you start digging deeper, you realise that the Educate Me, Give Me Perspective and Inspire Me user needs are, in fact, much more effective with engaging an audience interested in economy than the traditional default option of Update Me. And this happens a lot.
The user needs approach is never about telling journalists what to write about. Its goal is to guide newsrooms on how to write about whatever they want to write. A selection of a topic by itself is not enough, a user need always comes first, and only then you select a format. One of the best icebreaker exercises I do is to ask a newsroom to illustrate a random story of the day from a perspective of several user needs. Journalists love those exercises.
How can I integrate a user needs model into my workflows?
You start with creating a model – it must never come from inside a newsroom, it always comes from the audience. Go out there and talk to people as to why they consume news. Yes, there will be different cohorts wanting different things, but we already talked about focus and quality, right? In his seminal talk The Transformation, my friend Wolfgang Blau once said: “The most under appreciated resource in the media sector is not money. It’s focus.”
For user needs to work, everyone in the organisation – including Editorial, Audience, Social, Product and Senior Leadership teams – must share the same definition of them. The definitions must be clearly communicated, reinforced and made visible throughout the newsroom. Everyone must agree with the user needs and understand how they add value. I still remember flying to BBC offices around the world and being greeted by the printouts of our needs displayed across offices.
Once your editorial team is on board, your product colleagues, with user insights help, will see trends you’d never seen before – you’ll get new content products based on needs, and remedial action will go where it’s needed. If executed correctly, it will enable a more nuanced understanding of your audiences and what they are looking for in coverage, allowing you to build a much closer relationship with them. Remember: focus and quality – that’s all it takes.
The author, Dmitry Shishkin is a digital publishing consultant and User Needs evangelist. He sits on the advisory board of the World Editors Forum. Follow him on Twitter @dmitryshishkin