A Writer’s Thoughts on Building Audiences

By Vera H-C Chan

The most dangerous phrase in journalism today? “Let’s create something that goes viral.”

I say this even as media companies post job titles like “Viral Editor” or create micro-beats like “Viral News.” Yes, motives are the well intentioned “Hey, let’s create something compelling that will draw in the tons of people online who aren’t coming to us.” In other words, it’s like not saying, “Let’s create something oblique that appeals to the narrowest niche possible and then dies quickly.”

Viral marketing commercial campaign promises aside, the whole notion of virality is suspect—if you define it as information spreading from person to person. The Microsoft Research and Stanford study on structural virality noted somberly that “‘viral hits’ appear at a rate closer to one in a million.” In other words, there’s not much correlation between popularity and virality. When something exploded across Twitter (the focus of the study), it was because someone with a lot of followers—AKA the influencer, AKA the ol’ fashioned opinion leader—spread the news. Or the media reported on it. Fancy that.

When media outlets focus on populist content, they’re often chasing a broad, amorphous, social audience. I know what a dizzying pursuit that can be, having been a senior editor for nearly 10 years at Yahoo, a destination that at one point pulled in 1 out of 2 people who visited the Web. When I wrote stories for the front page or spearheaded editorial projects, the kind of numbers I dealt with was in the millions. For instance, one of my main projects—the Yahoo Year in Review—drew in a cumulative 250 million page views, 42 million unique users, and had a media outreach of 5 billion (with a “b”) in 2010 and 2011. Time spent or dwell time—the metric that truly counts—averaged a respectable 263 minutes.

Any outlet linked from that front page knows it’s a firehose, but good luck trying to drink from it. And with competition and mobile habits siphoning away that audience, Yahoo has long worked to convert that flood of spectators to a “sticky” long-term audience pool.

The struggle that Yahoo had — and continues to have — is one of plenty. The company giant’s problem though isn’t so different than CNN or Buzzfeed or a retailer trying to “create something viral.” Big or small, the viral approach fails at the storytelling level when the tone smacks of tin-eared artifice and when the reporting is generic. The outlet can end up more like a delivery system than a go-to hangout for good stories. If you’re aiming to woo influencers and keep the faithful, chances are they won’t want to live on a cotton candy diet for too long.

What’s often missing from the “viral” discussion is how building audiences is inextricably tied up in understanding your own mission and identity—a surprisingly elementary failing that afflicts both start-ups and media giants.  I suspect it’s not in the discussion because often times that understanding is assumed—even though a company’s team can come to the table with their own personal biases, motivations and experiences that could contradict, misconstrue or undermine the larger cause.

Also consider the case when new leadership is on the ground: Talking through identity can sometimes come across as rehashing the “old ways” when everyone should be looking forward. That’s not mutually exclusive—and when you don’t talk about what had been done, what worked and what didn’t, there’s an eerie way history has in repeating itself.

The audience, be they dedicated followers of kitten antics or a flash mass mob briefly united over a breaking news story, is canny in sniffing out insincerity and flightiness. Even though the media industry has fallen into the habit of using the words content, stories, and even journalism interchangeably, the audience knows the difference between filler and narratives. They’re pretty good at knowing what truth—or at least authenticity—sounds like, especially when they see the work put into understanding and communicating with them. To get them to stick, you need to tell them your story. And if that rings true, they’ll throw in their lot with you.

So let’s get some elementary principles out of the way:

1. Know your cultural DNA. I believe in the power of the origin myth, and how the circumstances of your creation mark your identity. The goddess Athena burst out of her Zeus’ head in full battlegear, after Pops swallowed his children to defy the prophecy that his children would outrule him. Would her name really personify a blog about A) yoga postures, B) the latest headache cures or C) profiles on military women in combat?

If spectators see a disconnect between how you present yourself and the message you put out, that hobbles your credibility and voice. Companies, often at the urging of publicists and venture capitalists, go through the exercise of creating an elevator pitch, to nail their mission and sell it in minutes. That’s all well and good in an elevator, but outside those four walls, you really need to understand the cultural values that inform your identity. What’s the difference between Starbucks and Peets? McDonalds and In’N’Out? Target and Walmart? The U.S and Canada? Understanding the personality goes towards your own credibility.

And sometimes, what you make isn’t necessarily who you are. Starbucks makes coffee but it really recreated the coffeehouse experience. (Did conversations about race belong? Time will tell.) Yahoo was a human-curated directory that enlisted Inktomi and later Google to do its search — its cultural DNA has always been about information, which partly explains its long history investing in in-house editorial.

2. Understand the audience you want, recognize the audience you have. There are at least two types of audiences: The ones you want, and the ones you have. Both can be a mystery, and both are worth investigating, especially where they overlap. If you have an unexpected readership, what is it about your outlet or product that attracts them?

Back in 2008, Yahoo really wanted to focus on moms — AKA the Chief Household Officers. That was 40 million women aged 25-54 — dauntingly massive from a storytelling perspective, and it took the (successful) kitchen-sink approach with Yahoo Shine, covering everything from astrology to parenting, beauty to food, health to celebrities. I knew from analyzing search data that we had audiences who followed stories about the military, science, black entertainment, and religion. And as a features writer, I saw another common thread of consistently popular themes: stories that evoked a sense of wonder and discovery, like reports of hitherto unknown species or celestial phenomena.

You can choose to remain focused on your original goal. You can go into an entirely different direction. But seeing where your audiences overlap can create opportunities.

3. Include cycles of life in your tracking calendar. Nothing beats a well-timed story, viral or planned. While you can’t always predict the news (although some try), a good calendar anticipates newsworthy events and seasonal spikes. There’s something very primeval about looking for patterns. That’s what I did as a newspaper features reporter, especially focusing on rites of passage — applying for college, planning a marriage proposal, preparing for death — and looking at how different slivers of our readership dealt with such events. For instance, I wrote the experiences of a teen, an immigrant, and an elderly person getting a driver’s license. A good editorial tracking calendar goes beyond holidays, news events, and entertainment releases.

Online, the life cycle can be divided in micro-segments, i.e. day parting. Again, search data told me that people looked up chicken recipes on Friday mornings or that entertainment fans more often checked for award show recaps rather than watch the show.  Understanding the behavioral consumption cycle of how people react to a story makes coverage more effective rather than reactive. You can also develop quicker reflexes when covering something “viral” for your audience, even after it peaks.

4. Law of Unintended Consequences. In a great story about big data, The Economist highlighted a correlation Walmart found in 2004: When customers stocked up on hurricane supplies, they also bought Pop-Tarts. Who knows why — maybe because they’re nigh indestructible comfort food, they don’t necessarily need electricity to eat, and they’re marginally healthier than a Twinkie. But whatever hurricanes did, they drove a segment of Americans to frosted toaster pastries.

I realized that’s how I often came up with story ideas: I looked for the Pop-Tarts. Your Pop-Tarts angle, of course, depends on your identity. (Did you know that Pop-Tarts sales have grown unabated in the past 32 years? Thanks, Wall Street Journal.)

5. Pay Attention to the Attention Economy. People live and die by metrics — and yet analytics are amongst the abstruse tools out there. They’re often mired in secrecy, inaccuracy, and people lie about them. Sometimes analytics aren’t even built into the project from the start — partly because editors aren’t even involved in the process — and they measure the wrong thing.

Grim? Yes — so it’s a relief that people like Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile are trying to get the industry to stop obsessing about page views and clicks and focus on engagement. (If you don’t know what Chartbeat is, it’s a real-time analytics tool — which can be hideously illuminating since you can see what your readers are honing in on or stumbling over.)

When a fellow producer and I hosted award-show live blogs, the dwell time was anywhere between 11 to 20-some minutes, which is notable considering entertainment fans could just go straight to the source (e.g. the Academy), more traditional outlets (Hollywood Reporter) or Twitter. For four hours straight, we narrated what was happening during the red carpet and show, identified designers and winners, interacted with guest bloggers, and posted trivia quizzes — but that’s not enough. What also was crucial was asking the audience what they were doing at that moment, answering their questions, and letting them talk to one another (which means moderating more than 3,000 comments). They came for the results and stayed for the conversation.

6. Screw the blog. The “failure rate” of blogs can be as much as 95 percent, and those aren’t just because neophytes gave up. Video news site NowThis killed its website to pivot entirely on its social media presence. Culture site The Awl wondered aloud, “For a publisher that wants to grow dramatically, websites are unnecessary vestiges of a time before there were better ways to find things to look at on your computer or your phone.” As for non-journalism sites: Did you even know The Gap has a blog?

The Awl’s musings was prompted by the move of outlets opting for channels in platforms like Snapchat or YouTube. That’s a good solution for non-media companies: Really, there’s almost no reason for a blog, except maybe as a public log of your outreach that others can connect to (a perfectly valid business reason). There are so many amazing platforms out there: Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Medium. (OK, fine Tumblr’s a blog —but it’s very visual.) To interact, you can do the Google Hangout, Twitter chat or Reddit-style AMA. You can even do email newsletters — it’s still a thing.

All these alternatives are cheap (or cheaper than an editorial department worth its salt) and you don’t need to create more work and more words that people won’t read. Otherwise you really have to invest in being authentic, e.g. really understand how to tell stories, share what your customers or audience are doing, and do what it takes to publicize it.

7. Don’t get stuck on the Platform. What I’ve been told at various points of my career, whether at newspapers, magazines or online: People don’t read. Longform is dead. People don’t click on NPR. We don’t need bylines — people don’t care about writers. Radio is dead. People don’t pay for content. Print is dead. Print is not dead.

I’m a very simple writer — to me, the truth counts. (Yes, it’s very Nancy Drew.) I don’t care if you got to this truth on a mobile phone or in a magazine. I don’t care if I have to get my point across in a chart or a slideshow rather than a 2,000-word essay (umm, like this article).

That said, the story should adapt to the medium, because every medium has its limitations. Longform didn’t die because a generation en masse couldn’t read past 500 words. (Although yes, there are those depressing eye-tracking studies).

Among other things, a cathode ray monitor isn’t the best way to read a long story. Probably not even a laptop because in 2014, tablets for the first time outsold all desktops, and laptops that year. (And mobile phones crushed all comers.) Now we have devices constantly reinventing themselves (hello, Apple Smartwatch) and apps taking advantage of their aesthetics (hello, Snapchat).

Yes, you must tailor your truth to the platform, but don’t get hung up on it. You can think of this as telling a never-ending story several different ways.

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