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Growing an Engaged Audience

How can you build and retain an engaged audience? For online publishers, bloggers, and content creators, this can seem increasingly difficult.

Audiences are spending time within the walls of social apps. These apps, especially Facebook, were once an excellent source of traffic for publishers but as algorithms change, those who relied too heavily on this traffic (most of us) are faced with some very real challenges to re-engage our audiences on our owned properties.

All is not lost. There's still plenty of opportunities to build an engaged audience. And, social still has a role to play. It's just that we've got to start using these tools differently.

Here are a few strategies to foster audience engagement.

It Begins with Intentional, "On Brand" Content

You've undoubtedly heard that you need to produce "quality" content. We wholeheartedly agree, but it's important to acknowledge that for some brands (think Buzzfeed's famous listicles or Funny Or Die's short funny videos), quality can be subjective. Sometimes what we would think of as "quality" content isn't actually on target for every brand. For some, a short article on Kim Kardashian's latest Instagram post is expected and in demand with their audience.

Long, in-depth, well thought out and edited articles are on brand for some, but not all.

Intentional, "on brand" content that resonates with your audience is the goal. It all begins with defining your audience persona(s) and then mapping all of your content strategies back to that persona. Staying consistent in the themes, topics, tone, and production quality across all of your channels produces the consistency that can help you build a loyal following.

When publishers jumped on the listicle bandwagon (we all did it!), it may have produced some quick traffic results, but it likely also diluted the brand value for many, resulting in much less engagement. In the long-run, it's the loyal audience that will keep your online brand afloat!

An Important Note

ALL of your activities should put your audience first. Audiences can feel when they are being "used." As a publisher, blogger, or content creator, of course, you've got to make money too. However, be sure that your monetization efforts fit naturally into what your audience would expect from your brand.

Set Your Site Up for Success

Nothing is a substitute for excellent and consistent content. If you have a loyal audience that is happy to give you attention because they enjoy what you're producing, you're winning!

However, there are a few strategies you can implement on your website to encourage your audience to discover more and stick around longer.

The rise of mobile viewership has been a critical driver of shorter session times for publishers and bloggers. Mobile visitors are on the go, less patient when it comes to load times and then there's just less real estate on the screen to serve up content and ads.

Optimize for Speed

Mobile users don't have the patience for slow load times. Most will bounce if it takes more than three seconds for your site to load. You can check your site speed here. https://developers.google.com/speed/pagespeed/insights/

If your site is not performing well, work with your website platform or website provider to identify what is slowing it down. It could be the ads loading on your page, special pop-ups or any number of things. Ensure that your platform or website provider is using a Content Delivery Network (CDN), like Fastly, Google Cloud CDN, or Amazon CloudFront to serve static assets like images. (We're just going to go ahead and take a moment to state that Cardsetter is optimized to serve up your content fast!)

Feed-like layout

Audiences are now accustomed to aimlessly scrolling through content thanks to the habits formed on social media platforms. Cater to this behavior to encourage more consumption of your content. Set up your site with a vertical and horizontal scrolling experience that's mobile intuitive. Endless scrolling on your homepage and main sections can keep them discovering more.

In 2017, USA Today completely redeveloped their mobile experience to give their readers a more "Facebook-like" experience. The site is mobile-intuitive and content is served up to the user based on their previous actions on the site. In doing so, USA Today increased their time spent per article by 44%.

Encourage Content Discovery

Many sites publish content in order of "what's new." Category pages then guide users to broadly grouped articles, still organized by newly published material within that category. Many publishers are missing out on the opportunity to engage their audiences by making it too difficult for their audience to find other related content on a topic. By contextually grouping related content, you can make better use of it, no matter the publish date.

Let's consider the example of a health and wellness focused site. Last year, this site put out a popular article on a specific outdoor workout. Since then, the publisher has developed more outdoor fitness content including a video and a podcast, and they have a contest running where their audience members could win a Camelback (water backpack). By grouping this content, on their homepage, for example, they can help their readers easily get to this related series of information without having to search or navigate to different sections of the site (which most people simply will not do).

Serve up relevant content at the end of your articles. We think theoutline.com does an excellent job of this! Whenever you reach the end of one of their articles they ask "Want something different?" Then they serve up a few other article options in a colorful and well-designed format.

Build Your Audience Funnel

You've identified your audience persona, and you're producing intentional, on-brand content on your site and posting it to your social channels as well. Maybe you've got a healthy list of email subscribers and social media followers. Engagement doesn't stop there.

You've got to think of your audience engagement strategy as a never-ending cycle where new audience members are discovering your content, and you're engaging existing members on a deeper level. There's attrition in all businesses, and at times, your audience members will drop off due to any number of reasons. So, you've always got to be pulling new people in for both sustaining metrics and growth.

As online publishers or "media," we often neglect to advertise our own entities. "People come to us for advertising. Why would we need to advertise beyond our own audience?" (It's like advertising agencies that think it's beneath them to advertise themselves.) Well, times have changed! Whether you are a large news media organization or a small cooking blog, you've got to remind your audience to stop by your website and see what's new. You've got to draw your audience out of the walls of social media and to your content. Or, if native content within social is a significant part of your strategy, you've got to make sure that content is getting viewed.

Marketers use customer funnels (or customer journeys) to move their target audience through the phases of awareness, consideration, conversion and then retention. Publishers, bloggers, and content creators should take a similar approach to build audience engagement.

Awareness

At the top of your funnel, you have the awareness or discovery phase. Here, you are trying to get more people to be aware of your online publication. They may discover you via a google search, a shared social media post, or by an advertisement that you've placed.

Yes, we think it's a good idea to use ads to drive traffic to your (best) content! The format and medium depend on your audience. A few options are Facebook ads, Google Ads, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and paid content distribution platforms like Taboola or Outbrain. It may also include more traditional media including print, tv, radio, or direct mail. Google, for example, has all of the online marketing inventory they could ever want, and yet, many of us have received direct mail offers from them. Facebook has the attention of billions of users, and we see their attempt to save their brand in television and newspaper ads.

Your ad, in any medium, can include a little taste of your content and you can encourage people to visit your website for more.

Similarly, you can build your social following on any of your chosen platforms. But, as we all are painfully aware, algorithms can make it difficult to reach people even after they've liked or followed you. However, some of your loyal readers will still see your content if they regularly click on and engage with your content. Moreso, we like to think of this as a way to have a qualified audience to distribute content through a paid means. You can target those who already "like your Facebook page," for example. And, they will be likely to click through to your content (and see and interact with your ads and sponsored content too).

Consideration

In marketing, this audience is aware of a brand, but they haven't committed to it. They might be researching their options or deciding if they need the product.

In publishing, we can think of them similarly. People in the consideration phase may visit your site occasionally, but they haven't "converted" yet. Conversions may be email subscribers, paid content subscriptions, product purchasers, course enrollees, or whatever specific goal you've set.

Using retargeting ads for your content, you can pull audience members from the awareness phase into the discovery phase. If someone pops onto your site from a single piece of content (from a Google search, ad, or whatever) but they don't visit again, you're not going to be able to turn them into a loyal reader. So, it makes sense that once they've visited your website for one piece of content, you'd want to show them other valuable content that you have to offer. The more they visit you, the more engaged they tend to become.

It's a relationship that you have to continue to foster just like marketers do with their customers.

Conversion

What are your conversion goals—Email subscribers, registered users, paid content subscribers, product purchases, event registrations, Facebook or slack group members? It may be a combination of these things.

The conversion phase focuses on encouraging your audience to sign up, subscribe, or purchase something. Guide your audience to these conversion activities with ads and callouts on your website but don't be obtrusive! Have you ever clicked to view an article to be immediately met with a popup asking you to sign up for the e-newsletter or subscribe before you could even see the website? Of course, we all have! And now, on top of that, we are met with a GDPR compliance popup that we have to click out of too. And what do we do? We leave, deciding that whatever we were trying to view, can't possibly be worth all the headache. Simply put, don't annoy your viewers. Let them decide that they like your content and your site before inundating them with your requests.

Retargeting your website visitors who are not already "signed up" with a paid campaign can help you drive conversions. You can also use call to action messaging throughout your site amongst or at the end of your content. If they've enjoyed reading your article, then they will be more inclined to signup for your e-newsletter.

Retention

Once you've got the active attention of your audience, you've got to keep them happy, i.e., "Intentional, On Brand Content."

Before you send an e-newsletter, make a social media post, write that article, work with an advertiser, ask yourself "does this add value for my audience?"

What are some additional ways you can help make your audience feel special? Perhaps you've got insider-only giveaways or offers. If you've acquired registered users on your site and can check out their loyalty (they visit your site regularly and view lots of content), maybe you send those users a little "something" on occasion (a special offer, swag, or freebie). Can you run a contest where one of your readers can—meet you, have a free consultation, get an extraordinary experience? Think outside the box! You can't always reward every member of your audience but giving them the opportunity can go a long way.

Of course, your content should be delivering the primary value, but, doing something a little "extra" can make your relationship with your audience that much stronger.

Publishers with non-gated content will also have an audience that is valuable that never ends up "converting." They visit your website but do not subscribe. They actively and regularly consume and even share your content. Their viewership helps you attract advertising partners. They may be part of your "monthly visitors or pageviews metric." If you've got readers/viewers who visit your site regularly, they can be considered to be in your retention phase.

In digital publishing, especially for those with a journalistic background, it can seem "wrong" to pull the audience in through marketing means aggressively. However, with the fragmentation of audiences in today's online world, it's simply not realistic to assume that you'll be "discovered" and that you'll have a constant flow of organic traffic or that once they visit, they'll be consistent about coming back. You've got to remind even your loyal users that you're there and that you've got great content for them to consume!

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