Wondering what you need to know when it comes to thinking about your strategy for growing loyal audiences? Here’s a crash course.

1.) Loyal readership comes from building a strong relationship between you and your reader.

Audiences don’t become loyal readers just because your headlines are crisp and your UI is well-designed. Those things play a role, but are part of a bigger picture. Casual or one-time readers turn into loyal readers through an individual relationship that you build by providing them with unique value.

audience loyalty cycle

Your job is to successfully provide this unique value, which usually meets some sort of existing need readers already have. When you do that well, they come back because they trust you; you’ve created a relationship. This requires understanding what needs your readers have (quick access to vital information? uplifting and shareable videos? in-depth, explanatory exposes?) and then determining the best way to provide them with information and content. And you will also still need crisp headlines and a good UI.

My co-founder and Parse.ly’s CTO, Andrew Montalenti, underscores the importance for publishers and brands to reevaluate how they understand readers. Currently, the industry faces “The Great Reckoning” in digital attention—an opportunity to fix the broken attention economy by putting readers and consumers front and center. Publishers need to pivot away from reliance on ad revenue:

“Rather than treating their readers and viewers as a product to be sold to advertisers via networks and exchanges, these publishers realize that they can develop products to sell their deeply engaged and loyal audiences — directly.”

And brands need to forge meaningful connections with consumers:

“Rather than treating their consumers as mere cookie IDs to be targeted across the web, brands will directly build a digital relationship with their customers and prospects. To achieve this goal, they’ll need to do something they’re not used to doing: publishing lots of useful content on their own.”

Not only does this shift in mindset help forge stronger relationships with audiences, but it opens up possibilities for diversifying revenue.

2.) Audience loyalty translates to success in a number of business goals.

Encouraging loyal readership helps to achieve long-term, sustainable business goals. Need to sell subscriptions? Loyal readers are more likely to pay. Need to sell ads? Information about your committed readers makes for a more valuable proposition to brands. Ultimately, an engaged audience creates a positive feedback loop where you deepen your relationship with your readers as they receive more value from your website.

How valuable? Ask sites like Google, Facebook or Twitter. Or consider the Q&A site Quora. Though not the first, or only, Q&A site, Quora created incredibly loyal users, by putting an emphasis on making sure that the content everyone creates in their system would meet the expectations of their other readers.

Quora journalism news

According to co-founder Charlie Cheever they did this by:

  • Educating new users upfront
  • Doing more to identify content
  • Empowering more people to make assessments about which content is good
  • Giving people the ability to focus their efforts on the parts of Quora that they care about

Every site from Quora to the local news will find profitability comes easier if there are growing loyal and committed audiences.

3.) Audience loyalty signals that digital media companies are more focused on long-term sustainability versus short-term optimization.

These solutions to create and deepen relationships with readers aren’t quick-fixes. They can’t be gamed by clever headlines or boosted by slideshows. They require longer term commitments and investments in research and understanding of audiences that’s shared throughout the organization.

In the wonderfully titled piece “Can you answer these 4 questions and save the media industry from Taylor Swift? Vox’s Nilay Patel argues that what we’ve considered “clickbait” for all these years is really just a way of providing scarcity in an overabundant market, and that the test isn’t the click – it’s the unique value offered after the click.

As they create their pieces, editors need to consider what the reader does after they click: their next action, their next share or their next visit. This is committing to readers for the long-haul. From a Poynter article, “The real problem with clickbait“:

“In other words, maybe the real problem with most clickbait is that those clever headlines and questioning tweets often lead to disappointing content. And yet the blame often falls more heavily on marketing than the people churning out stuff that sucks.”

4.) Getting a loyal audience requires different approaches for different sites and types of content.

Another complex piece of the audience loyalty puzzle? There isn’t a one solution fits all answer. To fulfill a unique value, you must have a unique solution.

At Parse.ly we often talk about our car metaphor: that you wouldn’t judge a Formula One race car by the same standards you would a family minivan, except for one thing: are you going to want to get back in and drive it again? Other than that, everything that makes you want to get in each of those cars is different.

Take Upworthy and Mashable, both great clients of ours that follow different approaches to audience growth. When it comes to monetization, Mashable focuses on e-commerce, branded content, and distributed content strategies. Upworthy engages in partnerships with brands that match their social missions.

What do both publishers have in common? They each understand who they’re talking to and what kind of content delivers value to those readers. Per the Upworthy website,

“We believe that stories about important issues can and should be great stories — stories for everyone, stories that connect us and sometimes even change the world…[s]tories that are worth your time.”

And for Mashable, narrowing the focus of their content verticals helped them better serve their readers and their business. On the Digiday podcast, Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore explains,

“In the past year we’ve seen what works for our audience is technology, entertainment and culture. We’re only going to target the super fan and we’re not going to play in the general news space.”

5.) Don’t miss the forest through the trees when it comes to audience loyalty.

The digital environment makes things like testing and optimization much easier than in other media, and any good marketer, designer or developer should be deeply invested in these practices.

But when it comes to creating content? It’s easy to get bogged down in the challenge of optimizing for a single metric, while missing the bigger audience loyalty opportunity. Says who? Buzzfeed.

“So there’s not going to be one metric that you look at. I love metrics and I love thinking about optimization, but I think that the optimal state is being slightly suboptimal because as soon as you try to actually optimize, particularly for a single metric, you end up finding that the best way to optimize for that metric ends up perverting the metric and making the metric mean the opposite of what it used to mean.”

— Jonah Peretti, in an interview with Felix Salmon

What you really need to know about audience loyalty is that those companies that capture it will succeed in the future of publishing and content brands. Will you be one of them?

Interested in growing audience loyalty on your site? Learn how Parse.ly provides actionable insights about your audience by signing up for a demo.