How 10 Top Media Execs Think About Audience and Engagement

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Whether you’re in journalism, marketing or advertising, you have to engage your audience. One minute a reader may be consuming news — the next minute they may be at somewhere in the purchase funnel purchase. Here are fresh, sometimes iconoclastic thoughts on how to engage modern audiences. They come from media executives who have demonstrated they know how to do it, and have been assembled in the Captivate Collection by the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications under Randy Bennett, director of entrepreneurship and partnerships.

“Engagement is perhaps the most elusive term in media circles today,” says Bennett.  “We’ve yet to reach consensus on what it really means, how it should best be measured and, perhaps most important, how to impact consumer behavior. But this collection, we think, represents some of the best thinking on engagement.”

Here are some of their thoughts:

David Cohn, executive producer of mobile-focused AJ+, which “packages” worldwide  news from legacy and digital media, and former chief content officer at Circa:
“An ongoing relationship with a small audience is more valuable than a mass of fly-by readers that will never return. And in place of subscriptions, products that create loyalty are invaluable. Online subscriptions are still an option to create that ongoing relationship — but even the successful New York Times metered wall, backed by the most trusted brand in news, can only claim 3% of its 31 million unique monthly views as digital-only subscribers (another roughly 5% may be print subscribers viewing content online). The question then is: What about the other 92%? Why aren’t they ‘engaged’ — can we offer them something besides ‘subscribing’ to be engaged with? How can we ensure these aren’t fly-by eyeballs?”

Jim Brady, founder and CEO of Billy Penn, a mobile news site that targets millennials and which sees itself as an advocate for Philadelphia even if when it has tough news to report:
“We are trying to monetize passions and not pageviews. For example, we might curate a lot of stories about development in Philly. People will get one button to get deep information about development. We hope from there people will build groups around that topic and then we would monetize those groups. …

“I also get a little worried that we are breeding a whole generation of journalists who are good at a lot of things but not great at any of them. We are trying to teach them reporting, video production data analysis, social media. But to stand out in this environment, you need to build a specific expertise. You have to have a sun in your solar system. Pick something you can build around. All of the rest of the skills will make you even stronger.”

Kail Colbin, Co-founder, Ministry of Awesomeness, a organization “dedicated to watering the seeds of awesome in Christchurch, New Zealand,” curator of TEDxChristchurch and the founder and director of New Zealand social media consultancy Missing Link:
“As engagement becomes more and more automated, we respond more and more strongly to people who feed our desire for human connection. We don’t want to feel like we’re being stepped formulaically through a pre-determined funnel. We want to be seen as individuals, appreciated for who we are, tamed the way Antoine de St. Exupery’s Little Prince tamed the fox: ‘”One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox.'”

Ryan Singel, co-founder of Contextly, which helps publishers increase readership through related content recommendations:
“We live in a world where many sites try to get attention anyway they can: jumping on the trending hashtag of the hour; writing clickbait headlines and re-writing other sites’ work, often with the slimmest of attribution and no fact-checking. But that race ignores the real question facing these sites, how do you convince people with choice to return to your publication?

“The ones that will thrive will be those who think about how to serve their audience; that understand what brings people to a site and what gets them to return; and perhaps most importantly, what gets them to be a loyalist.”

Darren ‘Daz’ McColl, global chief strategy officer at the advertising agency SapientNitro, with offices in New York City and other locations in North America and in Europe, Asia and Australia:
“Traditionally marketers have tried to figure out what would create a big splash. Today, we can put more emphasis on the ripples from that splash. Thanks to social media, if you make a single customer really happy (or really unhappy) large numbers of people are likely to hear about it. Capitalize on that logic. An event, even for a relatively small number of customers, can be a very worthwhile investment if those customers share images and comments about the experience with their social networks. Look for ways to create social capital.”

Rob Biesenbach, corporate communications consultant and business writer:
“I was at a candy and gum company talking to a woman down on the production line named Estela. Her job was to inspect the gum before it went out the door. When I asked her what she did to ensure quality, she walked me through her processes from start to finish, showed me a checklist of all the criteria she looks for and demonstrated how the x-ray machine works. It was interesting, but it wasn’t a story. It was just information. So I asked her what her kids think of what she does. That’s when she lit up. She pointed to a code on the back of one of the gum packages. That code tells you exactly when and where the gum was made, right down to the individual shift and production line. The kicker is, her children can read the code. So when her family goes to the store, the kids run straight to the candy aisle, turn over the packages of gum and when they find the right code, they yell, ‘This is mommy’s gum! My mommy made this gum!’ Now that’s a story.”

Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategist and member of the Directoire+ Publicis Groupe, which is 1,326 advertising agencies in six regions internationally:
“Recognize that everything is marketing. In a mobile age your customer tweets, Instagrams and posts about every aspect of their service or product experience. If the hotel room is good but the gym sucks, the world will know it. If the product is good but the customer support is not, this will be telegraphed. Ensure that your digital presence and your analog reality are both world class and connected. Recognize that the phone in your customer’s pocket is really their key interaction in many ways with your products and services.”

Kevin Roberts, executive chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, a global communications and advertising agency with offices in 76 countries:
“Emotional expectations of brands are on the rise. Consumers are asking ‘how does this brand improve my life?’ and ‘how do I feel about this brand?’ There is a thirst for authentic connections. Passive consumers are being replaced by active brand voters who opt into a brand ethos that meshes emotionally with their own lives.”

Tom Kelleher, chair, Department of Advertising, UF College of Journalism and Communications:
“The future of advertising lies in consumer engagement with brands and products. Mass media are not going away as channels for advertising, but online ad spending long ago outpaced print advertising in newspapers and digital advertising more recently surpassed national TV spending in the U.S. Investment in interactive advertising will continue to accelerate. Large-scale marketing success in the next few years will be driven by mobile and cross-platform messaging, and automated but personalized interactions.

“Creatives will still focus on psychological engagement as that coveted mix of perception, cognition and emotion that leads to consumer behavior, but creatives too will need to pay more attention to emerging technology. They must empathize with how their audiences engage brands and products across social, local and mobile platforms.”

Doug Weaver, founder and CEO of Upstream Group, media and technology sales strategy consultants:
“Two dominant trends in digital advertising today are data optimization and the programmatic trading of advertising display opportunities. Both of these are critically important, ‘hard trends,’ and they’ll continue – to some point – to usher more dollars into digital channels. But they are also both exercises in division and reduction: Help me show my ad to fewer of the people who don’t matter; help me buy fewer of the ads that don’t work or don’t matter.”

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News“column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present and future of Charleston, S.C.