Conventional wisdom says quality content is the most important element to success in an online publication. The truth is that content is oftentimes secondary to reader engagement. Local publications can’t thrive without devoted audiences, which is why many of the savviest publishers are searching for new ways to improve reader engagement.
Audience engagement is especially important for hyperlocal news websites with feet on the ground in the communities they cover. With an engaged audience, independent publishers are well positioned to compete against behemoths like Facebook and Twitter for local ad dollars.
Here are 10 proven strategies for publisher looking to improve reader engagement.
1. Cover the stories larger outlets are missing.
Regional publications don’t have the resources to dig into the types of local stories that add value to real people’s lives. Those types of stories should be the bread and butter of a hyperlocal publication. Going in-depth and thoroughly covering the topics that readers are keenly interested in—for example, local crime stories or updates on beloved members of the community—is a sure-fire way to boost reader engagement.
2. Build a pipeline for reader contributions.
One of the keys for publishers who want to improve reader engagement is to invite readers to become active participants, rather than just passive readers. The best hyperlocal websites are peppered with submission forms and invitations for readers to share their knowledge. Readers could also be encouraged to submit guest posts around whichever topics they’re most passionate about.
3. Add a jobs board. Successful local publishers have positioned their websites as community portals.
Their sites are the first place people visit to get any kind of local information. Adding a jobs board furthers that goal by providing a place where readers can get information about open positions specific to their communities. A jobs board can be integrated into a WordPress website fairly easily with the use of specially-designed plugins.
4. Host contests on social media.
Launch a social media contest that rewards readers for submitting their own photos or videos. The possibilities here are limitless, as there are any number of events or topics that contests can be tied to. Readers who might be hesitant to submit content on Facebook or Twitter can be persuaded with the lure of a reward, such as a gift certificate to a local restaurant.
5. Create ways for readers to interact.
Publicly posting contact information for editors and reporters is a catalyst for improving reader engagement. When possible, including reporters’ Twitter handles alongside their bylines can encourage the type of reader interaction that ultimate fosters loyalty and engagement.
6. Bring back the comments.
Reader comments have slowly disappeared from many hyperlocal news websites over the past decade. While moderating comments can be a chore, there’s no doubt that comments do have an impact on reader engagement. Publishers who are concerned about reader engagement should find ways to add commenting below the articles on their websites. WordPress plugins like Disqus can be useful for publishers who want a plug-and-play solution.
7. Launch a membership program.
Website memberships foster a sense of community, and work to improve reader engagement in a way that subscriptions do not. When readers join a website as a member, they feel like they’re a part of something greater than themselves, and they’re more likely to comment freely on articles and share content across their own social channels.
8. Use data to tailor content to audience interests.
Online publishers today have access to analytics tools that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Solutions like Chartbeat, which offers a plugin for WordPress users, can provide insight into which topics readers like to see covered. Making sure to send reporters to the events that readers actually want to learn more about is a good strategy for boosting engagement in the long-term.
9. Host real world events.
Whether it’s an informal get-together between editors and readers, or a larger community-wide event with sponsors, real world events can foster a sense of loyalty. Events don’t have to be elaborate to be effective. A number of online publishers have had great success hosting meet ups at local coffee shops, where readers are encouraged to come by to meet reporters and let them know which topics they’d like to see receive more coverage.
10. Partner with peers in the industry.
Building a consortium with peers in the local publishing industry can help publishers achieve the scale that’s necessary to thrive. Groups like LION Publishers, an association dedicated to local independent online news organizations, can provide networking opportunities that are useful when searching for potential partners.