A Publisher’s Guide to Audience Development

10 minute read

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As the publishing industry went digital, getting content in front of readers became a brand new game. Platforms, search engines, mobile devices, and more threw a wrench (or several wrenches) into the traditional audience growth process, leaving publishers with a need to create a new marketing strategy.

It was this shift, Digiday noted 5 years ago, that contributed to the surging importance of audience development for publishers.

But in digital publishing, a half-decade is practically a half-eternity. Diminished platform reach and declining ad revenue means that many publishers now rely on their digital audiences for direct revenue, making audience development more important than ever. For these publishers, audience development isn’t just about building an audience; it’s about building the kinds of audiences that will sustain new publisher business models and secure a place in a changing industry.

Here, we’ll talk more about the increasing importance of audience development, why email is so critical to successful audience development, and how you can use email to build and maintain audience relationships.

Table of Contents:

What is audience development?

The practice of finding, nurturing, and increasing the value of audiences, audience development occupies a space at the intersection of business and editorial:

“At the most fundamental level, both the business and edit sides want to reach new and existing audiences. But from there the interests can diverge. Whereas the newsroom wants to maximize the reach and impact of its journalism, the sales side is rewarded for growing ad revenue, which could lead it to prioritize certain audience segments over others. And then there is driving subscriptions and marketing other products like events and commerce.”

To that end, different business models require different approaches and strategies to audience development. But while audience development programs vary vastly across publishers, audience development as a whole is trending in the same general direction. Once largely a game of optimizing content for search performance and social virality, audience development is now about building and nurturing the valuable known audiences who will keep coming back to consume content and drive publisher revenue.

Why Audience Development Matters in Marketing

With digital publishing increasingly moving towards an audience-first focus, developing those audiences is critical. Through a robust audience development program, publishers can achieve the objectives required by this new focus:

  • Cultivate strong reader habits. With a habit of consuming your content, readers will come back to your site on their own. That means more pageviews, more ad impressions, and more revenue.
  • Learn about the audience. Repeated content consumption provides actionable first-party data about tastes and interests. This data can be used to personalize the user experience and deliver hyper-targeted audience segments for advertisers.
  • Effectively nurture casual readers into paid subscribers. Few readers will pay for content they know nothing about, so any business model relying on reader revenue must necessarily build relationships to convert paying subscribers. The same goes for publishers who drive revenue from sources like events.
  • Establish a reputation for quality. The seemingly-infinite glut of online content grows larger by the second. Publishers must set themselves apart, particularly if they hope to pursue paid subscriptions, and one way to do so is by establishing strong relationships with readers.
  • Drive more value from the audience. A highly-engaged returning reader is more valuable than an unknown visitor who passes through your site, never to return. The more of these readers you have in your audience, the more revenue it generates.
  • Build more sustainable business models. With a consistent audience, publishers don’t have to rely on the virality that once drove publisher revenue. Instead, they can build their business on a more consistent foundation: an engaged audience.

The “Holy Grail” of Audience Development: Email

Content Marketing Institute calls email audiences the “holy grail” for content creators, and for good reason. In recent years, publishers have placed renewed emphasis on email to great success, but what makes email so important to audience development? Here are a few reasons.

  • Email is a direct channel to reach and engage your audienceYou don’t have to wait for email readers to serendipitously discover your content in a news feed or search page. With a way to deliver content straight to your audience, you can grow the relationship over time, free from interference.
  • With email, you own the audience relationship. Building audiences on platforms puts that platform between you and your audience. At best, they might take a cut of your subscription revenue from that audience. At worst, a single algorithm tweak could cut you off from that audience completely. Relationships in the inbox are yours to keep, as is the revenue you drive from that relationship.
  • Email subscribers are a publisher’s most valuable readers. Readers who subscribe to an email newsletter visit more often, view more pages, spend more time on your site, and as many publishers have found, are more likely to convert to a paid subscription.
  • The email address is your audience’s home on the internet. Likewise, a click from an email newsletter carries a user’s identity. This gives link to subscribers across devices without requiring a login, allowing you to collect actionable first-party data from your readers.
  • Email gives publishers a channel to use advanced audience development strategies to grow the relationship. With a direct connection to individual readers (along with their data), you can tailor the experience to the user by delivering newsletters that correspond with content consumption or cross-promoting relevant newsletters.
  • If it comes down to it, email provides a path to salvage lapsed relationships. Sometimes even the most devoted readers will fall off. Fortunately, with a way to reach these disengaged readers directly with email re-engagement campaigns.
  • Referral programs let your audience do the development for you. Newsletters like theSkimm or The Hustle have devoted fanbases, and they don’t let these rabid readers go to waste. These publishers incentivize subscribers to share the newsletter with friends: like-minded people who trust their judgement. A recommendation from a trusted friend is more likely to sway a new reader than a cold call-to-action, making it an effective way to grow their audience.

When it comes to developing your audience, email has a lot going for it. The next few sections will provide a few tips for putting it to use.

Step 1: Kicking Off Email Relationships with a Good First Impression

Email is where relationships are built, but it takes a certain amount of trust to get visitors to hand over their email address. Audiences can’t trust your content if they haven’t viewed it first, so asking first-time visitors for their email address the second they hit your site will likely end in rejection.

To boost your chances of conversion, experiment with delaying your capture widgets until you find the sweet spot, like this audience development team did:

“The iQ team determined repeat readers are four times more likely to sign up for emails than first-time readers – so it delayed the pop-up push until a reader’s subsequent visits. And as the team finessed the analysis – looking at post-click data to spot more patterns – it realized someone who spends more than 90 seconds on the site is eight times more likely to sign up. These findings helped the team optimize the precise moment a visitor sees the sign-up pop-up.”

When it’s time for your email capture widget to make its grand entrance, make sure it follows email capture best practices. Here are a few to start:

  • Grab your audience’s attention with an active capture widget.
  • Tell potential subscribers the value they can expect to receive from your email, what kind of content they’ll receive, and how often they can expect to receive it.
  • Don’t ruin your chance of conversion by including too many form fields. If you need additional data, try using progressive capture forms to collect the email address first, then ask for more information.
  • Optimize your capture widgets for the mobile experience.

Once a visitor subscribes to your newsletter, use this window of engagement with your content to deepen engagement with a strong welcome email. Send an introduction that sets the tone for the newsletters that follow, or create a welcome series to introduce yourself to new subscribers through your top evergreen content.

Step 2: Engaging Your Audience with Email

With a direct line to your audience established, you can grow the relationship by fostering continued engagement with your content.

At the most basic level, engaging your email audience comes down to sending good email and making sure it gets to the inbox; after all, if deliverability issues are causing your emails to land in the spam folder, it doesn’t particularly matter how good those emails are.

To improve the chances of engaging your audience in the inbox, you might also try:

  • Increasing the relevance of your email. Building a newsletter program around content topics or verticals allows you to provide visitors with newsletter options that are most relevant to their interests.
  • Improving the user experience. Don’t stop at making your content mobile-friendly; drive engagement with personal experiences. Use the first-party data gained from email engagement to show onsite content recommendation, display calls-to-action that correspond with their place in the lifecycle, or even personalize email content.
  • Earning additional chances to engage this audience. Sending email too frequently can fatigue your list. But what about the members of your audience who want more newsletters? Use newsletter cross-promotion to send additional relevant newsletters to your most engaged readers without earning unsubscribes from your casual readers.

Step 3: Maintaining Audience Relationships in the Inbox

With email, you’re in a good spot to ensure audience relationships keep going strong. Especially if you’re a publisher with premium products: email newsletters play a large role in paid subscriber retention.

But what happens if those relationships do start to fall off? You have a couple opportunities to rekindle the relationship with email as well.

  • Email Re-engagement Programs. Inevitably, members of your audience will stop engaging with your content. It typically takes more effort to win a new subscriber than it does to retain an existing one, which is why publishers should implement re-engagement into their lifecycle marketing efforts. Create a re-engagement program that targets disengaged subscribers with tweaked messaging, lower-frequency newsletters, or maybe even a different newsletter entirely.
  • Preference Centers. If a member of your list decides to unsubscribe from your email, you may be able to salvage a subscriber if you have a preference center. There, you can provide options: allow them to opt down into less frequent communication, or perhaps they may find a newsletter that’s more relevant to their interests.

And if a subscriber fails to re-engage or decides to opt out of your email anyway? It’s best to let them go; they’re not interested in your content, so it’s unlikely you’ll develop this audience further. It might sting a bit, but fortunately, you’ve got an email program in place to find, grow, and develop those audiences who are interested.

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