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Audience Development for Publishers: Approaches and Tools

Stephan Heck

Stephan Heck

Audience Development for Publishers: Approaches and Tools

Increasing website traffic and publishing tons of content is no longer enough for news organisations to succeed as a digital brand. They key to standing apart from the competition is to grow a loyal audience, gather true fans who are not only regularly consuming content but are happy to pay for quality information. That’s why more and more news and magazine brands implement audience development.  

In this article, we offer a definition of audience development, present best practices for integrating audience development into an organisational workflow and give an overview of the aspects that every successful audience development strategy should consider.  

What is Audience Development? 

Audience development combines data and human judgement to build relationships with new and existing customers – to serve them better and thereby increase monetisation.  

Or as Alexandra MacCallum, consultant at The New York Times, once said: “It’s about making people loyal, not chasing clicks.”  

Why clicks are not enough 

For a long time, the focus of news organisations was on traffic generation. However, in recent years it has become obvious that high traffic alone is no guarantee of digital success. Not every reader is of equal value. If millions of people flood a site after breaking news but then never return, the news organisation might have served its public function to inform – but it has achieved no economic progress. 

Global brands like CNN, BuzzFeed and Huffington Post have been pioneers in the field of audience development for several years. Now, an analytic-based approach to gaining and retaining customers is becoming mainstream.  

Publishers increasingly focus on their core audience which generates the vast majority of a site’s traffic and revenue, according to Piano. 2.12 percent of users generate 50 percent of traffic.  

Although an integral part of audience development is measuring data, implementing smart automations, and personalising content, the approach is rather qualitative not quantitative. For an audience development strategy to work, experienced editors have to put metrics into context to make not only finance- but mission-driven decisions. Otherwise, the best analytics tools won’t help to build a loyal readership.  

How news organisations have adopted audience development 

Audience development is a complex task and therefore involves different departments with different priorities: 

  • the editorial team wants to maximise news impact and reach  
  • the sales team focuses on ad revenue and growth and might therefore have an interest in developing certain audience segments over others 
  • the marketing team’s primary goal might be to increase sales of digital products or events and therefore it will have yet another audience segment as a top priority 

There is no one way to ensure successful audience development. The only common denominator of all news organisations who are pioneering in this field: They chose an individual approach.  

Most organisations start by creating the role of an audience development manager, before dedicating a whole team to formulating and executing a defined strategy. In some cases, the head of audience development has a background in economics, in others they come from the editorial or technological side. That’s why there are lots of different job descriptions and job titles.  

At Emily Shakleton is Audience Development Editor with a background in journalism. At Time Out Group, Sven Whitby is Head of Audience Development after being Head of SEO at The Sun. And Abigail Sjoberg at Away held positions in growth and programming before getting  into audience development.  

More important than titles is the way the audience development team is integrated in the overall organisation.  

At lots of news organisations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Upworthy, audience development teams are close to the editorial side. They inform editors on a regular basis, often once a week, about content performance and offer data-based suggestions for further coverage to help editors keeping audience development top of mind.  

Others like The Economist or BBC work with cross-departmental teams. Bleacher Report went a step further and declared audience growth to be part of everyone’s job. And CNN chose to create an independent team that is neither part of editorial nor sales – and sees positive results.  

Audience Development: Approaches and Tools 

Attracting and monetising the right audience, and building a community of loyal readers – those are fairly high-level goals. But how does audience development operate on a day-to-day basis?  

A clear strategy should build the foundation of all audience development activities. Successful brands define goals that mirror their specific priorities. They use metrics as guiding lights to determine effective editorial or marketing activities and include KPIs that are tied to the bottom line, for example newsletter subscribers, sales through affiliate links or engaged time. 

At its core, audience development should focus on three areas:  

  1. Attract more relevant readers 
  2. Convert more readers into paying customers 
  3. Develop existing customers into loyal fans 

Successful publishers use iterative approaches to find out which revenue models work best, which content formats are read the most and which distribution channels are worth the effort. As the media landscape is continuously evolving, publishers might want to look out for emerging trends to incorporate in their community building efforts.  

In the early days, news organisations focused on two main traffic sources: search engines and a few social media platforms to bring content in front of as many eyes as possible. Today, the online landscape is more diverse. Effective audience development should be an integral part of a digital strategy and content from the very beginning instead of being added on top as a support mechanism. 

Social is still an important way to connect with new and existing readers. According to research by Reuters Institute, social media platforms are where Gen Y (43 percent) and Z (57 percent) first come into contact with news. SEO and retargeting are still relevant but there are a variety of touch points and tools that audience development use to get to know readers and engage with them:

  • Recommended articles  
  • Brand’s news app  
  • Push notifications 
  • (personalised) newsletters  
  • Integration with news aggregators 
  • and much more 

The tools to determine which measures work best have changed. Google Analytics has been widely used to get to know readers, but leading organisations increasingly replace generic tools with industry-specific applications such as AI-enabled data management platforms which offer metrics more relevant to editorial decision making. Their big advantage: They integrate data insights that editors otherwise must gather from different applications and use machine learning to optimise results.  

Machine learning also enables publishers to personalise experiences via content, touch point and subscription path optimisation. Readers expect individualised content more and more as they are used to it because of platforms like Amazon and Netflix. Successful audience development takes advantage of personalisation while still delivering curated content in order to fulfil the purpose of journalism: inform timely and accurately about important world events. 


Amid changing online trends, audience development has become the core of a more stable business model for news organisations. It is no longer about generating traffic but building trust and serving a smaller but loyal readership.  

How to approach audience development has changed with the pace of digital transformation. What started as an addition to the content creation process, it has evolved to become an integral part of digital strategy. There is no simple formula for successful audience development. Analytical capabilities, strategic thinking, appropriate tools, and organisational culture are all important variables of the equation.  

Smartly executed audience development not only strengthens the economic basis of publishers  but also supports effective journalism. 

How important is audience growth and community building in your organisation? What are the challenges you face? What successes have you achieved so far? Share your thoughts and best practices with us at our upcoming roundtable discussion “Audience Development: How to Build a Loyal Audience” at the PPA Independent Publishers Conference & Awards.  

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