The Conversation identifies brand-specific user needs, redirects content strategy

By Stefan ten Teije


Nijmegen, The Netherlands


The idea that users need more from news sites than simply being “updated” first gained prominence at BBC World in 2017, but has since been adopted and adapted by an increasing number of media organisations.

Earlier this year, following a period of extensive research and consultancy, media consultant Dmitry Shishkin, together with editorial data company smartocto, identified eight universal user needs. They added two needs often omitted that answer the increasing call for more service- or solutions-based content.

Understanding user-specific needs can help newsrooms generate new story ideas and develop an effective content strategy.
Understanding user-specific needs can help newsrooms generate new story ideas and develop an effective content strategy.

Journalistic organisations can use the model in two ways:

  1. In the creative process and for generating new story ideas: For example, if research shows a doubling of bicycle accidents in a city over 10 years, addressing the “help me” need could involve providing tips on safely cycling through the city.
  2. In crafting and overseeing a content strategy: For instance, if data research reveals that “give me perspective” stories are created more frequently, but “educate me” stories are read more often, the editorial team can be directed to produce more of the latter. Make sure you analyse this in combination with topics and formats.

According to Shishkin, understanding your unique position in the market and aligning your production with the desires of your audience is crucial. This involves researching very specific needs.

Vox, for instance, identified the need “take me from micro to macro” — a brand-specific user need tailored for its audience, broadly sitting under the context-centric axis. It’s not just about wanting to explain the news; it’s about how you do it that matters.

Which brings us to The Conversation: As an international news outlet, it became interested in the user needs approach — and specifically the question of whether the needs identified were the best ones for the brand.

The Conversation uses the user needs model for its UK edition. “We started during the pandemic,” said Khalil A. Cassimally, head of audience insights. “Suddenly, we were writing extensively about COVID-19. This applied to us, but also to all our competitors. My personal take is that we, as the media industry, have been writing for ourselves for far too long instead of for our audience. As journalists, we were very eager to stay informed about the latest news, but the audience was not seeking minute-to-minute updates. The situation called for more empathy.”

To address this, Cassimally enlisted the help of smartocto and Shishkin to undertake a thorough analysis, converting that empathy into a data-driven content strategy appropriate to each section. Most news organisations find out they’re over-producing “regular” news stories (the ones classed as “update me”), but something else was happening here. The site focuses on four user needs:

  • Update me (they call it “keep me on trend”).
  • Motivate me (a subset of the action-centric axis).
  • Give me perspective.
  • Educate me.

The analysis performed centred on the balance between newsroom output and performance. What emerged? The “motivate me” articles performed exceptionally well, but they produced too many “give me perspective” stories. Relative to the other user needs, these did not contribute sufficiently to attracting new visitors or satisfying loyal ones.

Cassimally noted that when they examined the “give me perspective” articles, they realised they didn’t have a consistent theme. This highlights a key aspect of the user needs approach: Using a model is one thing, but having a uniform approach is another. “Editors found it challenging to fully grasp the “give me perspective” user need, making the method less actionable,” Cassimally said.

Therefore, The Conversation is taking the next step by formulating brand-specific user needs better aligned with the brand and that are more recognisable to both the editorial team and the audience. They plan to break down “give me perspective” into more specific user needs, such as “give me the big picture,” “give me historical perspective,” and “give an expert prediction.”

“It’s not about using the eight user needs we’ve devised, although I think the brand-specific ones are always linked to those,” Shishkin said. “Rather, it’s about using that framework to strategically guide the journalistic process and be consistent in adhering to it. So, continue to follow whether your audience understands what you’re doing — and always do this using the data as your foundation.”

Cassimally wants to introduce this way of working to newsrooms of The Conversation in other countries. “They might have user needs with their own nuances. But the most important thing is to take all editors along in the process and constantly show them the effect of changes. That’s why we often collectively look at the quadrant model, a square graph where you can see which stories emerge with different metrics such as reach and engagement.

“That would also be my message to other media wanting to work with it. If you order a finished report, it ends up in a drawer,” Cassimally said. “Working with user needs is ongoing research.”

About Stefan ten Teije

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