How The Conversation used audiences-informed commissioning to increase engagement among young professionals

The UK-based publisher planned to adopt a new approach to covering topics relevant to people in their twenties and thirties. The result – Quarter Life, a series of articles for young professionals – has been an eye-opener in showing the impact of audiences-targeted journalism.

Publisher bio: The Conversation is a digital-native, not- for-profit news organisation that sources stories from the academic and research community. Operating under the belief that evidence-based information from experts should be accessible, its content is published under a Creative Commons licence and can be republished for free.

The Conversation’s global network includes editions in Australia, UK, US, Canada, France, Africa, Spain and Indonesia. Overall, it has a viewership of 1 billion (200 million for the UK edition), and connects 70,000 academic authors. It is funded by universities, research bodies, foundations and donations from readers.

By Khalil A. Cassimally

  • 60% greater share of UK-based readers
  • 45-50% greater completions

These numbers show just how powerful an audiences-targeted approach to content publishing can be. They show how understanding our readers can help us publish articles that are even more valuable to them, and increase our reach at the same time.

In March 2022, a UK-based team at The Conversation started experimenting with a different approach to commissioning. Instead of our typical desks/topics-led approach, the team started commissioning stories with a specific target audience in mind. The team was cross-functional, made up of editors and audience development people. None of us had much experience with this audiences-targeted approach. Plus, it was the first time this approach was used at this scale within The Conversation.

Here’s how we started publishing audiences-informed articles, with limited experience and limited resources – with tips for other newsrooms who also want to be more valuable to their readers.

Discovery phase

Our aim for this phase was to agree on a target audience and create a cross-functional team that would be tasked with understanding and serving that audience.

To decide on the target audience, we brought people from our many teams (Leadership, Membership, Editorial, Audience) together. Involving those stakeholders this early in the process was extremely beneficial. It increased the collective confidence in our decision and in what we would set out to do.

We then created a cross-functional team comprising both editorial and audience development people.

By the end of the discovery phase, we had decided to target young professionals (twenties to thirties) based in the UK. And we had created a cross-functional team of half a dozen editors and a couple of audience development people who would spend 20% of their time understanding and serving that target audience.

Phase one: ease in

Our aim for this phase was to introduce the team to the concept of target audiences and to build the infrastructure to support the team (think dashboards, skills …).

The audiences-targeted approach to content publishing was new to most of the team. Yes, editors did think about audiences when commissioning and editing stories but it’s fair to say that audiences were not necessarily considered in a systematic way.

To introduce the concept of target audiences and explain the value in focusing on a small subset of our audience, we went through this logic:

  • What is it that we’re trying to achieve? Produce content that is even more valuable to people.
  • How do we produce content that is even more valuable to people? Better understand people.
  • How do we better understand people? Acknowledge that it’s difficult to understand a lot of people well because people are very diverse, with different needs, interests and problems. But it’s easier to understand a smaller group of people very well, especially if there is some form of commonality among them.
  • How do we better understand a smaller group of people? Conduct research with users from our target audience.
  • How do we know we’re producing content that is even more valuable to people? Look at meaningful metrics such as completions, not pageviews.

We then built the infrastructure to support the team. This included building a clean and simple dashboard with just two metrics: completions and staying rate. These metrics were meaningful and would give us clarity on whether we were moving towards success. They would allow us to monitor the depth and breadth of user engagement with our audiences-informed articles, proxies of how valuable users found the articles.

By the end of this phase, the team had begun publishing Quarter Life, a series of articles targeted at young professionals in the UK.

Phase two: user needs

Our aim for this phase was to introduce the team to insights about the target audience which would inform their commissioning going forward.

This is where the user needs model comes in. At the basis of our audiences-informed articles is a better understanding of the needs of the audience and serving those needs.

A lot has already been written about the model, such as Dmitry Shishkin’s piece about user needs and how successful it’s been for newsrooms; my piece about how The Conversation deployed user needs in 2021 to be more valuable to our climate readers; my piece about the decision-first approach to user research.

By the end of this phase, the team was publishing audiences-informed articles. And we found that Quarter Life articles had a greater share of UK-based readers, greater completions and greater pageviews than all articles.

Phase three: scale and distribute

Our aim for this phase is to onboard more editors on this project – and use the audiences-targeted approach more systematically in product development – as well as finding distribution partners for Quarter Life.

We’ll also get to know the extent to which the audiences-targeted approach to content and product development impacts on user monetisation. The Conversation is optimistic. Getting more value more regularly brings people closer to the point of monetisation, and the data is showing that audiences-informed articles are more valuable to people.

By the end of the year, we’re hoping that the majority, if not all, of the UK newsroom of The Conversation will be publishing audiences-informed articles.

Considering that The Conversation’s authors are all academic experts and researchers, those articles are trusted information from experts, presented in accessible language thanks to editors, and deeply valuable to readers. A winning trifecta.