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Learn From Your Audience

By Sam Ford

A few years ago, I co-edited a book about the cancellation crisis for U.S. soap operas.

One of the pieces was written by Emmy-winning soaps (and professional wrestling) writer Tom Casiello. Tom had spent years in the writers’ room, talking about the audience. But only when the 2007/2008 Writers Guild of America strike hit did he find himself among the fans, as his show continued on with non-union writers.

When he became part of the fan community himself, he realized that all of the talk about Nielsen ratings, survey results, focus groups, and so on, had taken him far from the actual fans he sought to reach.

How do we make sure you don’t fall into this trap of chasing numbers over the concerns of your readers? Here are three quick ways to make sure you’re listening to your audience:

1. Value the anecdotal
We all know the dangers of making decisions based only on anecdotes. But we don’t talk nearly enough about the value of anecdotal evidence. If you need to provide your boss with reports about audience metrics, make sure find a space in each for including anecdotes.

If you’re the recipient of such reports, request this be included from time to time. What were some of the most powerful or eloquent responses to a story in our comments section or on social media? Did you receive any emails about how meaningful your work was to somebody? It’s important to remind everyone that numbers correspond to real people and their experiences.

2. Talk about audience interaction
Many people – even most people – in a team will read mentions of your stories on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. You also hear feedback from friends and family. Too often, that information stays with each person, or mentioned in passing at lunch, without formalized ways to share and capture the most interesting insights. Meet within or across teams at least once a month to share what you’re hearing and seeing from your audience.

3. Listen to the community
For issues that you cover on a regular basis, keep a revolving list of key voices/organizations who care about those issues outside the media world or your regular list of sources, whether that’s a Twitter list, a set of bookmarked sites, or Facebook pages. Make sure the list is populated by people with different points of view, from different parts of your coverage area, and various racial/ethnic/gender identities.

Reserve at least 30 minutes a week to check those sources, and, if you feel comfortable doing so, reach out and ask what they think about a particular story, and what you should cover next. Be grateful for what they say, and listen carefully.

Sam Ford is a consultant, research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and instructor in the Western Kentucky University Popular Culture Studies Program. He was formerly VP of Innovation and Engagement at Fusion. You can find him on Twitter @Sam_Ford and learn more about his work on his website.

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