Inside The Texas Tribune’s audience growth strategy

This post appeared in the Reynolds Journalism Institute blog and has been republished with permission.

Tim Griggs

Tim Griggs

In my last post, I briefly described The Texas Tribune’s strategic challenge around smart audience growth and a pilot to test a growth-hacking concept, funded by the generosity of a Reynolds Journalism Institute institutional fellowship. In a future post, I’ll share results of the pilot. For now, a little more on audience.

Justin Ellis at Harvard’s Nieman Lab summed up the state of the Tribune more astutely than I could in a piece commemorating our fifth anniversary: “Five years in, with the ledger looking good and the journalism running strong, the big question for the Tribune is: How do they find more readers?”

As we began the process of planning for the next five years, the questions were clear: Are we fulfilling our stated mission? Who are we reaching and why? Who are we not reaching and why? And, most difficult to corral, what’s our total potential audience here? In other words, what’s our growth ceiling?

These are not unusual questions, nor unique to the Tribune. And solving the riddle of audience growth isn’t a new challenge. In fact, the discipline of audience development, or whatever phrase you choose to use, is finally getting the attention it deserves. The New York Times innovation report helped spur the need for Alex MacCallum’s audience-centric team in the newsroom. News organizations are starting to think about audience growth as a key part of their internal structure. And more thoughtful attention is being paid to what’s working at digital-native organizations like Vox and BuzzFeed.

For the Tribune, these were big, hairy questions and we needed a pretty rigorous set of research to answer them. Specifically:

  • Analytics: What do we know about user behavior across all of our platforms (site, social, search, email, live events)?
  • Qualitative/focus groups: What makes a moderate or heavy user different from a light user or look-alike user?
  • Quantitative/surveys: What is the profile of our current users? What makes them different from people who look like they should be Tribune users but aren’t (aka prospects)? And what is the market size of each of those segments?
  • Usability testing: How do users perceive or value what we do and how could we do it better?

Step one was to understand everything we possibly could about our current audience, including site behavior, event attendance, content preferences, brand identity, and usefulness of features and products. One of the big headlines: Audience, at least defined by what we could evaluate accurately at the time, was fairly flat by most measures, and signs pointed to a relatively insider — but very influential — audience.

Step two was to paint practical profiles of that audience. What characteristics do our users have in common? How would we define a potential user or prospect? What makes our heavily engaged readers unique from light users? Research helped us define common attributes of core users. For example, they’re:

  • More likely to work in the public sector.
  • Heavily engaged in civic activities.
  • More likely to live in Austin than other places in Texas.
  • Heavy media consumers in print, broadcast and digital.

The research also helped define common attributes of our prospects: they consume digital news, seek state news and already follow one or more of the public policy verticals we cover.

We also gathered a huge amount of other constructive data, from the Tribune’s effect on:

  • Civic engagement (60 percent of users, who are already very involved, claim experiencing the Tribune has made them more likely to vote, volunteer time, donate money, attend meetings or share opinions on a political campaign or policy cause in the future).
  • Advocacy on behalf of the brand (on the net promoter scale of -100 to 100, the Tribune scored a remarkably high 85).
  • Awareness of the Tribune as a nonprofit (39 percent of users and 72 percent of past users didn’t know we were a 501(c)3.).

Step three was to size the market. Now we’re getting to the money question: What’s the possible audience? How many people in Texas are realistic Texas Tribune readers? Through quantitative research, we were able to estimate a core group of 400,000 insiders (people who generally match the profile of our existing heavily engaged audience) and a potential pool of 4 million prospects (adult Texans who are digital news consumers and follow one or more of the policy subjects the Tribune covers). That’s roughly one in five adults in Texas. Of this group, about half had never heard of the Tribune.

Step four was to develop an audience strategy. OK, so now what? First, there’s a big strategic question: Does growth even matter? Theoretically, “super serving” the users we already have can be a fine approach, from both an editorial and business perspective. But to really deliver on our stated mission to inform Texans, we believe that reaching this wider net is critical.

What we won’t do, however, is stray from our niche: to be a nonpartisan source of news on politics, policy, government and statewide issues. We won’t change our coverage philosophy to get new eyeballs, or use tricks to boost reach. Growth is good, but it must be the right growth.

Ultimately we settled on a bifurcated audience strategy: Expose the brand and build future loyalists among this group of 4 million civically engaged Texans and deepen engagement among the roughly 400,000 insiders and current loyalists.

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What does this mean in practice? For starters, it means getting away from treating all readers the same and instead moving to a targeted approach based on segment. As a simplistic example, we know we have a portion of readers who obsess over every turn of the screw in a particular legislative committee.

Offering real-time notifications (mobile, Web, email, Twitter, text) will have tremendous value. To other segments, however, this level of detail would be unnecessary and uninteresting. Conversely, we know we have a portion of readers who want to be smart when talking to friends and co-workers about, say, a hotly debated proposal on highway funding. For this group, a minute-long video report on the local news and the opportunity to sign up for a weekly email summary on the issue may serve their purpose well.

Step five, then, will be to build a smart, systematic audience development process. More on this, and how growth hacking fits in, next time.