“When the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.”
— Clay Shirky
The key to audience development is the theory of the audience funnel. At the top of the funnel you attract as many people as possible to interact with your organization. Ultimately, at the bottom of the funnel, you’ll have a smaller group of people, but they will be the ones who sustain your organization over time. They will be so engaged with your content and such champions of your organization that they will fund your work.
A key aspect of audience development is knowing your potential audience. You can’t assume it’s the whole universe. Not everybody wants your content. To identify your potential audience you must do some market research, which may sound like an unfamiliar job, but journalists know how to do research and the next page of this guide will show you where to start. Whether the market is geographic or topical, figures are available showing how many people the market encompasses. Who are the competitors in that market, and what percentage of the market has supported those competitors? If a publication in the market shut down, why did that happen, and what percentage of that publication’s subscriber base could you reach to expose them to your startup? Are there new competitors coming in to fill the same void you have targeted?
Doing the Math
Understanding the size and shape of your funnel must happen early in your business planning because it may lead you to rethink your product. For example: An education writer who has covered the schools in Springfield decides she will start a website about Springfield schools, aimed at the town’s parents and teachers. The population at the top of the funnel is limited, say 20,000 people, and market research shows (hypothetically) that in other towns, only one in five parents and teachers go online to get general news and information about local schools, and only one in five of those readers say they would pay for that news and information. Simple math shows that her organization has 800 possible donors. If they eventually gave her an average of $50 per year, her potential revenue would peak at $40,000. She decides that’s not enough to fund her costs, so she must start thinking about growing the number at the top of the funnel.
Broadening the Pool
There are many ways to increase the potential audience. The organization could target a larger geographic area or broaden its topic. It also could add a product aimed at a separate audience, for example the education writer could repurpose some of her content into a newsletter aimed at policymakers statewide. At the same time, she would have to stay aware of any factors that could narrow the top of her funnel, such as a new competitor or demographic changes in the market.
Successful INN members have followed a target-then-grow strategy:
- If you start with one hot issue not being covered adequately in your community, or a few anchor topics in a small area, you can broaden gradually to adjacent issues or to neighboring or adjacent communities.
- If you start by trying to reach only the influencers in your specialty or topic, think of it as aiming for the bull’s-eye of your target. You can then try to broaden your readership gradually to the circles that make up the rings around that bull’s-eye.
For example: EdSource targeted the teachers, administrators and officials who needed a more convenient way to access the vast amount of public information that affects education in California. Then it used social media to broaden readership to a much larger group — parents. The Texas Tribune started with statehouse news for political insiders, and its audience gradually broadened along with its coverage.
This chapter will explain how to apply these strategies.