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Five ways journalists can engage their audiences in storytelling

Five ways journalists can engage their audiences in storytelling

Clothilde Goujard | July 25, 2016

Some newsrooms may think that audience engagement starts and ends with how many people have reacted to their posts on social media.

However, entrepreneur and radio journalist Jennifer Brandel is trying to help newsrooms see there's more to audience engagement than that. Her startup, Hearken, lets the public work with journalists in pitching and assigning stories. This will result in stories that audiences already find "personally relevant" and are more eager to share with their social media networks, according to Hearken's website

So far, newsrooms have used Hearken to report and track stories that have broken ABC Australia’s record for Facebook shares and won a regional Edward R. Murrow award for investigative journalism.

A strong advocate for changes within the media industry, Brandel said she believes newsrooms are still reluctant to collaborate with their communities.

“It is still an environment where you do have to convince editors that your audience is worth listening to,” she said. 

Brandel shared a few tips with IJNet on how journalists can create more engaged audiences without relying on a flood of social media posts promoting new content. 

1.) Engage with your audience before publishing

Open up your newsroom to people who want to ask questions and contribute story ideas. More perspectives and more diverse ideas will better serve your community, especially in newsrooms that are still not representative of the populations they serve.

“Ultimately, no matter how good your intentions, no matter how smart you are, how fair-minded or thoughtful and everything, you’re limited,” Brandel said. She suggested investing more power in the hands of audiences when it comes to thinking up story ideas — a practice that could also help smaller newsrooms where journalists face time restraints. 

2.) Create a direct relationship

Don’t be too reliant on social media such as Facebook and Instagram, as you’re not in control of their changing algorithms. Instead, build a direct relationship with your audience. Brandel advises using email addresses.

For example, when people ask a question or vote through the Hearken platform, they have the option to give their email addresses. They can also opt in for a newsletter.

“Our approach moves toward a world where young people and news brands have more of a direct relationship,” she said.

3.) Reward audiences

Brandel said she is convinced audiences are not passive news consumers. 

“I fully believe that there are people out there who would love to participate, love to be heard, love to contribute productively to the newsroom,” she said.

However, be careful. Some media organizations ask a lot from their audience without ever acknowledging their help and informing them of what they’re doing with their contribution. Do the opposite and reward your audience for participating. Ask for something small that doesn’t take too much time. Keep them involved and updated on what happened thanks to their help.

“People will do lots of things for attention,” said Brandel. So give people their moment of fame on social media and credit them for their contribution.

4.) Adapt to your community

“Fundamentally, human beings are curious, no matter where they live or where they come from,” said Brandel.

However, be aware of cultural differences when adapting to your specific audience. When Hearken partnered with Finland’s YLE, Brandel learned that Finnish audiences are more reticent to be mentioned and rewarded publicly. In contrast, Americans are particularly excited to be featured.

5.) Show the “behind the scenes”

Brandel also recommended involving your audiences and showing them what journalism is like.

“[Journalists] just assume people know the story took three months and 50 interviews,” she said. "They don’t go out and say ‘We’re giving you a Rolls-Royce piece of journalism right now.’ They could do a better job making that clear.”

Explain to your audiences why paying for their news can be necessary to produce quality journalism and maintain a healthy democracy. In a recent global survey of news consumers by the Reuters Institute, 67 percent of those surveyed said they would not pay for online news, whatever the price, in the U.S. It goes up to 75 percent in the U.K.

Spend that time developing trustful relationships with your audiences — especially in the U.S., where lack of trust is a real problem for media.

Still not convinced there's more to audience engagement than social media posts? Check out this comic Hearken published for another perspective.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Pedro Ribeiro Simões.

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