Tony McDonough reveals the best practices for building audiences
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Tony McDonough reveals the best practices for building an audience for your online content

This week on the Matchstick Creative Journal, we have a guest post from Tony McDonough, an award-winning journalist from Liverpool Business News:

Publishing is showbiz: bore your audience and they won’t come back.

I began my career in newspapers in 1992 when the fax machine was still cutting edge technology and email was little more than a rumour.

A decade later, and the internet was an established phenomenon but the regional news sector was slow on the uptake with many old hands still failing to recognise the tsunami of change that was coming.

When the truth dawned a degree of panic set in. In a rush to ‘colonise the space’ media groups made the historic error of dumping all their content online, offering it for free. Not only did it piss off many readers still paying for their print copy, it also meant future attempts to introduce paywalls would largely be met with contempt.

The mantra we were all given was ‘the internet is not a threat, it is an opportunity’. Turns out it was a threat and an existential one at that. The regional news model that had sustained an entire industry for 150 years was dealt a near-fatal blow.

Compelling content is, and always has been, vital

As print journalists we had spent decades kidding ourselves, believing the amazing content with which we were filling our newspapers was the main reason people were skipping to the newsagents every day to buy them.

In reality, they were buying their daily papers for all kinds of reasons:

  • The homes for sale
  • The classified ads
  • The new jobs sections
  • The horseracing cards
  • Cartoons
  • Crosswords

When most of that migrated online many stopped buying the paper.

In my mind, content is everything. If it isn’t compelling and relevant to your audience you’re dead in the water.

Large regional newsgroups are now often accused of publishing too much ‘clickbait’ on their websites – low-grade content designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Not only is the accusation untrue and unfair but it also poses the obvious question:

why would they post content that no one clicks on?

Find your content niche and own it

I left the regional news sector in 2016 and began working with my colleague Jennie Lewis on what was then called YBNews and later rebranded as Liverpool Business News. We saw a gap in the market for a reliable source of local and granular business news.

Not only do we cover the big regional stories but we also offer a platform to the army of entrepreneurs and small businesses that are the driving force of our economy. We seem to have hit on the right formula as we have seen our audience grow rapidly and now see tens of thousands of visits to the site each month.

Understanding our audience has been a crucial factor in that and we are therefore quite fussy about what we publish.

I’ve seen small websites or publications disappear without a trace because they became self-indulgent, publishing content that appealed to their own narrow interests rather than what they think their audience cares about. Publishing stuff that is ‘worthy but dull’ is also a common trap to fall into.

Admittedly, it is not an exact science. Applying the ‘so what?’ test is a good starting point for any piece of content. If I was at a social gathering and someone was telling me the story would I say ‘oh wow, really?’, or would I think ‘so what, why are you telling me this?’.

Great images can make a huge difference. I love a picture that tells a story, that is dynamic and has a bit of life to it. I hate line-up pictures where seven people all stand stiffly next to each other like they are about to be shot. I also always try to use landscape-shaped images. Readers hate having to scroll past deep pictures on their mobile devices.

Shout about your content; promotion is key

Two other crucial parts of the strategy in building our audience have been our twice-weekly newsletter and our social media activity.

The newsletter is free and is delivered to thousands of subscribers at 8am on the dot every Tuesday and Thursday. It comprises eight of the best stories from the previous couple of days with a headline and a picture that allows you to click through to our site.

As it was in my many years in print, a good headline is crucial. It needs to be clear, concise and, wherever possible, with an active verb. With online news, there is a tricky balance. You don’t want to give everything away with the headline as people won’t click through to the story if you do.

I recently published a story about a new route out of Liverpool Airport, with the headline ‘Blue Islands to launch new summer route from Liverpool Airport’. It did really well and I wonder how much of that traffic would have been lost had I actually stated what the destination was in the headline. Nothing wrong with a bit of a tease.

Social media is crucial to success

Finally, utilising social media is so obvious these days that it almost goes without saying. Pretty much every piece of content we publish is pushed out on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. We use Instagram as well.

We tag relevant people and accounts in, we use hashtags and we offer a little comment with each post. This encourages engagement and discussion and we are not afraid of that. People like it when you are prepared to engage with them directly. But we try not to get into arguments.

If you are a publisher of content then, basically, you are in show business. The audience is everything. Once they start to say ‘so what?’, you’ve lost them.

Key takeaways for your own small business:

  • Apply the ‘so what?’ test to any piece of content. Ask yourself if someone would think ‘oh wow, really?’ or ‘so what?’
  • Great images can make a huge difference
  • Readers hate having to scroll past deep pictures on their mobile devices
  • A good headline is crucial. It needs to be clear, concise and, wherever possible, with an active verb.
  • Tag relevant people and accounts in posts. Use hashtags and offer a little comment with each post.

Make sure to follow Tony and Liverpool Business News on Twitter.