The Audience Development Plan

(continuing with Tom Davidson’s contribution)

Do it right, and you’re on a solid path to sustainability. Don’t bother with it at all and you’ll forever be scrambling to achieve your goals. Your organization might fail. Sounds daunting, and in fact, developing and implementing an audience development plan involves continual work. The one-time research you conducted to decide the “job” you’re going to do for your audience was just the beginning.

This section is about making a constant effort to recognize that all your community/audience members aren’t the same, and understanding those differences will be your job month in and month out. You or someone in your organization will be devoting time to that task instead of writing or editing content. It’s a job that legacy news organizations assigned to marketing and circulation departments, but in the digital news era, newsrooms should understand the audiences. In fact, they may be uniquely positioned to do so.

The reality? Many people who could benefit from your work have never even heard of you. Only some of those who have heard of you have ever consumed your work. Most of those people visit only sporadically.

But a handful – a vital handful – are loyal users. They are your biggest fans, the ones who spread the word about your awesomeness and the ones most likely to provide other support you need. A common way of thinking about that progress is as an audience development funnel. (Some of you might want to turn it upside down and think of it as a ladder. That’s OK. We won’t judge.)

The key stages are:

Awareness: The portion of your community that has heard about you – but hasn’t sought out any of your work yet.

Sampling: They’re part of your audience – but the fickle part. They’ve visited. Once or twice. And not for long. Analytics people call these “one-and-dones,” as in people who visit, read one piece of content, then disappear.

Habit: Those people who visit you a couple of times a month – more than average, in other words. But you probably don’t know who they are.

Loyalty: The heavy consumers of your work – people who can’t do without you. Collectively, they’re probably only 10 to 15 percent of your total visitors, but they’re generating half of your content views.

Advocacy: Your BFFs. The people who forward your work to friends, cajole others into checking you out, and maybe even give you money.

At every step, the pool gets smaller, but the engagement increases dramatically. And if you’re thoughtful – and take the right steps – you can move people down the funnel (or up the ladder) to greater engagement. Think about steps you can take to move a portion of the audience to the next stage.

This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive – and there’s no “one size fits all” playbook. But here are some techniques worth testing:

To build awareness: Participate in community events – yes, physical ones if you can, but don’t ignore the virtual ones. Every community out there has a message board or Facebook group. Participate in them – and not just as a promoter: (“Read our lovely content!”). Instead, be an active force for good – offer advice, make connections, genuinely engage and be part of the community. It builds awareness of your project – and also persuades people to sample your work.

To build sampling: Promote your work where it makes sense. Social media, for sure. But also make sure your work is easily discovered and shared. That means search-engine optimization, and making sure your page designs include other stories. (Don’t be like a public-media site that once featured a design in which every article page was a dead-end with no obvious link back to any other part of the site.) The right partnerships make sense, too – if they’re designed in a way to get people to visit your digital presences (not just read everything somewhere else).

Loyalty and habit are about making it easy for people to return to you – and email newsletters are an effective method.

To envision the what your funnel will look like, consider what it will take to move some of your audience members through it. Your starting point is your Market Assessment – that research you performed about the total size of the community you seek to serve. (You remember – this module? Oh, you didn’t do it? Go back. We’ll wait.)

Start with your Total Potential Market – the largest possible group of “community members” who might ever be interested in you.

Now get realistic: How many of them can you reach? What other competitors are competing for their attention? That’s your Total Addressable Market. (It’s smaller than the Total Potential Market. A lot smaller. Especially when you’re starting. Deal with it – it’s better to be conservative at this stage.)

Now: how many are you reaching TODAY if you already have launched? That number is easy to find, in Google Analytics or other metrics software. (Just keep in mind: Unique visitors means devices. A visitor who sees your work on a desktop computer, laptop and phone counts as three unique visitors – but  just one human.)

The total unique visitors for the past month is probably a lot smaller than the total size of your community (that potential audience). That’s OK. Think of it as your growth potential.

Now’s where the real digging starts: Let’s say you have 50,000 visitors in a month. What portion of them are loyal or habitual users?

The sad truth: Something like half of your visitors came once, then left and didn’t return. (That’s especially true if you had a piece of content that went viral.) It’s great that your work was exposed – but those “one and dones” aren’t an audience you can easily monetize – and if you fixate only on growing that number, you’re on the Path to the Dark Side of Clickbait.

Instead, do some math: Take your unique visitor number. Divide it by the number of visits. (You’ll find that in your analytics software, too). That’s the average visits per unique. It’ll probably be two to four visits per month. Now: Look at the portion of your visitors who came more than average. It’s probably a small percentage – certainly less than 25 percent – but that small fraction of your audience was likely responsible for half or more of your total content views. Those are your loyal and habitual users. And a subset of them are potential subscribers / members / donors. (Ken Doctor’s excellent “Seven percent solution” outlines this phenomenon brilliantly.)

Once you know these stages – and the rough proportion of your audience in each – you can develop the guts of your audience plan. Those are a series of steps to grow the total audience and move some of them through the process toward becoming loyals and advocates. 

That brings us back to the warning at the beginning of this section that we would be talking about continual work, which can be summed up as “Build, measure, learn.”

It’s really just applying the scientific method to your audience efforts. Don’t go into new projects saying “Let’s try this new thing to, ummm, see if it works!”

Instead, chart out specific goals that you can measure and test against reality: 

“We theorize that a weekly email newsletter of our top stories will increase repeat visits by recipients. We will promote and launch that newsletter on (Date), and compare return visits by subscribers 90 days later. We’ll deem this a success if we have 2,500 newsletter subscribers by that time, AND those subscribers’ average visits per month are at least 15% higher than non-recipients.”

Those goals help you to understand what’s working – and, just as important, stop doing things that aren’t.

Did our weekly email newsletter hit its goals? 

Yes: Keep doing it! Think about expanding!

We missed by a mile: Stop! Spend your time, effort and money elsewhere!

No, but we were close: These are the tough ones. What tweaks could you make to improve performance? Did you promote the effort enough? Is your email signup process too clunky? Is that new content initiative really doing a “job” that the audience wants done – or are we simply publishing for ourselves?

You’ve probably figured out the hidden secret in this by now: Your audience plan isn’t an act, because it never ends. One test leads to another. Each deployment of a new feature or project is measured – and whether it works or fails, you learn something that informs the next set of experiments and ideas. In other words, your audience development plan is a mindset as much as anything else: Build. Measure. Learn.


A Tale of Two Newsrooms: Lessons on Accurately Assessing Your Audience (Tom Davidson via INN, 2018 video)

Harvard Business Review on “Lean Startup” Method (2013)

Mediashift Tip Sheet on Email Newsletters (2018) 

Ken Doctor on the 7 Percent Solution for Digital Audience (2017)

American Press Institute on Converting Subscribers (2017)

Doing Journalism … Is an Act of Community Organizing (2010 – Ignore the date. This is a gem from Robert Niles, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who runs sites as varied as Theme Park Insider and If you like it, I strongly encourage you to pick up his follow-up book (available in electronic formats or paperback), “How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online.”) Use Mini-Publisher Approach to Drive Growth (2017) Four Measures of Success (2017)

Six newsletter tweaks now can pay off at year’s end (INN, 2018)

New year, new newsletter resources (INN, 2018)


 Tom Davidson