Publishers, Don't Overlook Your Best Source of Content Ideas

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As a publisher, if you’re following a trend, you’re already behind. Here at 101 Network, we discovered that the hard way when we were first starting out back in 2016.

In order to produce content, we did what most amateur publishers do: We followed trends and tried to replicate the success of others. We tapped into tools like Google Trends, Twitter Trends, NewsWhip, and others. Although we found some initial success with that strategy, in time, we found ourselves hitting a wall.

It’s hard to keep growing without unique content. To take things to the next level, we knew we would have to be original, but we also had to hedge our bets. After all, content production is not cheap, and originality doesn’t always work. And yet, we knew that unique content was what separated premium publishers from amateurs. We started thinking about what readers really wanted and asked our users for help.

That was a turning point for us.

Content Ideation: Beneath the Surface

In turning to our social channels, we hoped to find some pattern or formula that could feed into a new process of content ideation. We found that our most popular stories also had the highest engagement. In fact, readers had been sending us their thoughts and opinions since day one — we just hadn’t been paying close enough attention.

We began to explore how users were reacting to our content and found that the success of a given piece wasn’t so much about the topic, but rather the way users related to it. We knew this was something that needed more exploration and analysis, so we started digging into the feedback.

In doing so, we discovered that our readers were eager to add their two cents on topics. Sometimes they did this by voicing opinions (for better or for worse), sharing personal stories, asking questions, or starting full-on discussions about the content. No matter the type of interaction, they were joined by a common thread: People were most engaged with our content when they related to it personally.

Given that 101 Network is a data-driven publisher that derives a big portion of its users from paid distribution, it was a pretty big oversight on our part to neglect the massive amount of data we had on existing content — especially given that it was data tied directly to our (and most publishers’) biggest business challenge: successful content ideation. But our eyes were now open, and we were looking to put our newfound insights and reader-centric mentality to work.

Case Study: Vintage Toys

In shifting our content ideation process from chasing trends to responding to user engagement, we turned our attention to a particularly engaging story about Cabbage Patch Kids that was published on our History101 channel. One of our editors began reading through the story’s social network comments, one by one, and — boom. A trend emerged: Across the board, people were sharing their childhood memories and their own excitement about getting a Cabbage Patch Kid.

A natural question arose for our editor: Were there other toys out there that could spark the same positive, nostalgic memories? She assigned the topic to one of our writers on the Finance 101 channel — a retrospective that delved into the value of popular vintage toys — and the resulting piece is one of the most successful stories the 101 Network has ever produced. It was an easy win, and we can thank our readers for that.

Tapping Reader Feedback at Scale

For us, the vintage toy story served as proof that we were on the right track with content ideation. We also realized that, in addition to actively monitoring social media feedback, there were plenty of other passive user feedback signals we could mine to see what kinds of content readers desire most. These included signals like time on page and bounce rate, which we were already tracking for other business objectives. But there were other, more subtle ones, such as internal hyperlink click-through rates and dwell time, which measures the time users spend on each paragraph.
We are creating even more areas of data to analyze content engagement. Through these kinds of metrics, readers speak volumes about what they deem worthy of their attention.

To turn these revelations into a scalable content approach, we knew we had to go further. Specifically, we asked ourselves:

  • When a story lacks engagement, how can we prompt more conversation that enables us to learn more about what readers want to see?
  • Most importantly, how do we put user feedback at the heart of our content ideation process in a scalable way?

In terms of driving user feedback that could serve as inspiration for our editorial team, we are working to integrate user feedback checkpoints into the content creation process itself. If we find a social post lacking engagement, we sometimes get the conversation moving by interacting with commenters, joking around with readers, or chiming-in with additional insights. We are also investigating the concept of integrating direct polling into our content via Instagram polls, reaction widgets, and other calls to action.

In looking to empower our users’ voices, we also realized that the best people to pulse-check how content is resonating are the writers themselves. After all, they have the deepest understanding of the subject matter and the points of the story that might connect with users. Thus, we’ve looked to empower our writers to become data engineers as well. We’ve done this by:

  • Encouraging our writers to read the comments and identify the overarching reason a piece of content resonated with audiences.
  • Sharing the on-site user behavior with them as it pertains to their stories so they can see for themselves where readers are most interested.
  • Developing tools on top of our CMS that enable writers to analyze the engagement of their content via data, and test possible changes to create a greater resonance with readers.
  • Giving shout-outs to writers in company-wide emails whenever their reader pulse-checks become a hot spot of activity.
  • In the near future, we are going to begin testing reaction widgets, in-line polls, and more for writers to further understand their readers.

Writers are the most invested people in content development. They will easily be able to tell you the juiciest part of any story they’ve ever written, making them the perfect people to sprinkle content with strategic reader check-ins to drive on-domain user activity.

By putting our readers at the heart of our content ideation and empowering our writers to use their insights to drive engagement, we’ve solved the challenge of creating unique content for our publications. While we’ll always keep an eye on what’s trending, we’ll never again be followers to the latest fad or fleeting topic du jour.