3 audience research strategies that can help your news business grow

How independent publishers are using audience research strategies to grow their reach and revenue.

August 31, 2022 by Ben DeJarnette

“You can’t afford to be wrong.”* 

That quote from Henrico Citizen founder Tom Lappas has stuck with me this month, and I think it will ring true for many news founders. 

Unlike some media executives who can blow millions of dollars on a half-baked idea, independent publishers have to make their big investments count. If they don’t, it’s not just their reputation at risk. It’s often their livelihood, as well as those of the teams they employ.

That’s why we decided to kick off our new content series at LION with a focus on audience research – because there’s no better way to de-risk a news idea than to understand the people who will be endorsing it (or not) with their clicks, shares, donations or other contributions. 

So how are independent publishers using audience research to make smarter, more responsible investments in growth? Here are three examples from LION members who participated in the LION-GNI Sustainability Audits and Funding program, which gave publishers personalized advice and up to $6,000 to act on the recommendations for their audit. 

Test an audience-focused freelancer before making a full-time hire

New York Focus launched in October 2020 and raised more than $16,000 from 200 funders in its inaugural membership drive. 

General manager Rebecca Klein says the publication has attracted a mix of civically engaged politicos and less plugged-in New Yorkers who want an accessible way to keep up with state politics – and it’s grown organically without a dedicated budget for audience engagement and development. 

Klein hopes to eventually hire a full-time audience lead, but she plans to start with a freelancer to help them analyze internal metrics, conduct an audience survey and ultimately build a case for doubling down.

“We have some of the budget [for a full-time hire],” Klein says, “but we’re hoping that if we see a lot of progress and gather a lot of audience insight with our freelancer, we might be able to use that data to specifically fundraise to cover a full position.”

This type of experiment is as close as it gets to a can’t-lose investment: At worst, the newsroom gathers data about its audience and insights on how to refine its growth strategy. At best, it provides a stepping stone to its next full-time hire by helping the team learn more about its needs and make a stronger case to potential funders. 

Diversify your audience by talking to people you don’t currently reach

When Joanna Detz and her husband Frank Carini launched the environmental news site ecoRI News in 2009, they started by setting up meetings with at least 200 politicians, scientists, activists and environmentalists to better understand their news habits and needs, and they used those contacts to build an email list that’s been growing ever since. 

What’s missing from that audience is a large segment of Hispanic readers, despite the fact that they make up the state’s fastest-growing racial group and they’re more likely than non-Hispanics to consider climate change a top concern

Detz says the Sustainability Audit process helped bring more clarity to ecoRI’s efforts to diversify its audience, adding that “parts of it were a little uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing,” she said. 

It also helped her identify next steps that are very similar to the initial conversations she had nearly 15 years ago –– a good reminder that audience research is something organizations should regularly revisit, not just when they’re about to launch. 

After receiving the Sustainability Audit report, Detz applied for funding through the Audit program so she could “set up one-to-one interviews [and] organizational meetings with stakeholders and ask what they want in local or statewide environment news, with the goal of reaching and serving this significant and growing demographic.” 

Detz has already started organizing those meetings, including one with the Latino Policy Institute, and she plans to work with emerging partners to survey at least 50 Hispanic community members, who will be compensated for their participation. 

Widen your reader revenue funnel by identifying likely members or donors 

As The Current comes up on five years serving Lafayette and southern Louisiana, it’s facing a familiar challenge for early-stage news startups: The organic growth that helped it reach 5,000 newsletter readers and 300+ recurring members has started to plateau, along with its reader revenue.

Founder Christiaan Mader says part of his challenge is that he thinks like a civic-minded journalist, not a business-minded publisher, so he’s started working with a consultant to connect audience insights to his donor strategy. 

One insight so far is that even the most basic audience research can help identify “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to converting readers to paying members. 

For example, a survey might ask “how likely are you to recommend The Current to a friend or colleague” – and the people most likely to recommend instantly become membership prospects who receive more frequent and targeted conversion appeals.

Learn more about audience research

As LION wraps up our deep dive on audience research this month, here are some of the resources and opportunities we recommend for independent publishers:

  • Be inspired: Listen to this News Guest episode for research and growth advice from The Green Line founder Anita Li and WhereBy.Us co-founder Rebekah Monson. 

*“You can’t afford to be wrong” is a quote from our upcoming episode of News Guest, which you can find on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.  

LION Publishers is a professional association dedicated to helping independent news publishers build stronger, more sustainable businesses. Sign up for our weekly industry newsletter to learn about other resources and opportunities for independent publishers.

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