Journalists, it’s time to date your readers

During a Skype chat, Mashable’s very smart community manager, Vadim Lavrusik, mentioned that part of the challenge of real engagement is learning what makes your audience tick. We have to get a sense of what they like, and what they respond to in us.

To me, what he was describing sounded like dating, in the get-to-know-you phase. You’re entering into a relationship with your audience, and you have to figure out what times of day they prefer which sorts of activities, what makes them mad, what makes them want to curl up and spend time together.

What does your new significant other like first thing in the morning? How does he choose where to eat? What is he like around his family? How does he spend his free time?

What does our Twitter audience spend time with while they eat lunch? What kind of prompts makes web users want to participate in our community photo contest? Where (online and in person) do people go to talk about specific topics or issues? What are Facebook users looking for first thing in the morning? What kinds of information do our people want to share with their people?

After your getting to know each other phase comes your I-was-listening phase, which involves behaving in a way that shows you have learned how to best care for your significant other. That phase should also include your I-can-adapt activity, demonstrating you understand that peoples’ preferences and needs morph over time, and that part of being in a relationship is adapting to the changes.

Just like there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for authentic engagement (in relationships or journalism), there’s no universal approach for interacting with our communities. We have to learn to meet people where they are and give them what they haven’t yet asked for, at least explicitly. We have to base our decisions on what we’ve learned about their preferences and behaviors.


I hear a lot in academia about how we don’t want to lose our focus on the fundamentals of journalism: accuracy, verification, clear writing, etc. This came up in a conversation yesterday with a colleague, Nick Jungman, and one of our old college professors.

My response was that our idea of what’s “fundamental” needs to expand to include the duty to reach and engage our intended audience. If you haven’t done that in today’s climate, have you really committed journalism?


Other things I learned and am thinking about after talking to Vadim this morning:

— There’s movement around the idea of narrowing personal networks, reducing noise and increasing intimacy. If that happens, will news organizations have the relational chops to make it in the inner circle? Or will their access to peoples’ networks be reduced?

It’s not fair to blame the audience when they don’t respond. There’s too much of “oh, the audience wasn’t engaged with that topic.” Did we really communicate it clearly and make necessary outreach efforts?

— To measure success, have a goal for each project or effort. Don’t try for one-size-fits-all solutions. Try and fail often enough that you know what to shoot for, and then assess whether you hit the goal. (I heard that from The Guardian this week, too.)

— When it comes to measuring engagement, there’s only so much we can do with numbers. Quality counts. Meaning counts. Investment counts. Not everyone who’s invested is going to share content on social media or jump into the comments section. Wendy Norris, a reporter in Colorado*, recruited citizen volunteers to help her crowdsource a story about condoms. Seventeen volunteers went to 64 stores to help her see how condoms are being sold. Seventeen highly engaged readers, who’d never show up in analytics.

* The post has been updated to correct where Wendy Norris lives. Sorry, Wendy!

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.


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