Young girls
Credit: Mircea on Pixabay

Academic news website The Conversation is using article series and text message strategies to appeal to a younger readership.

The Conversation is known for publishing analysis and commentary from academics and professors at universities, which are paid members. In-house editors then fine-tune these contributions to make often dry subjects more accessible to both general and professional news audiences.

Its own audience survey data showed that a bulk of its readers were in the 18 to 35 age bracket. The publication started to wonder what type of content these readers need at this stage of their lives.

To experiment with a new approach, The Conversation launched the Quarter Life series in March 2022, commissioning stories for people in their 20s and 30s. Think topics like health and fitness, sex and relationships, buying properties, work and careers, and yes, social media trends.

The aim is not just to get more traffic, but to help audiences complete articles and use the website more. In fact, completions and staying rate are the only two metrics they use to measure success.

Speaking on the podcast, commissioning editor of The Conversation, Avery Anapol, said this series is not just about introducing new topics to the website but about commissioning with outcomes in mind.

The publication took inspiration from the BBC's six user needs model introduced by then-BBC World Service digital development editor Dmitry Shishkin. It is a framework that considers what type of experience audiences want or expect from a piece of news content. (Side note: an updated user need model is being published next month).

Like other newsrooms, The Conversation has adapted the model. It has identified four user needs: three have been taken from the BBC ('educate me', 'keep me on trend', and 'give me perspective'), and a new one has been added ('motivate me'). This has proved important for mental health and environmental topics.

"Our numbers show us that this series is resonating with people across the board [resulting in] higher engagement and page views generally," says Anapol.

"What that tells us is that commissioning with user needs in mind is just a reward across the board, it meets readers where they are and keeps them engaged."

The Conversation is also known for making its articles free to republish under the Creative Commons licence, save for some guidelines. This helps to amplify the research of member universities and get niche topics in front of a relevant audience.

One of the most republished articles on Quarter Life is on the quiet quitting trend, and why doing less is good for both employers and employees. More topical stories have also done well, like whether it is safe to go on holiday with covid-19.

A piece on the TikTok interior trend 'cluttercore' speaks to the value of fusing academic subjects with trends. It was picked up by the likes of Fast Company and Next Web.

"There’s a whole historical Victorian approach that people are scrolling past on TikTok or chatting about with their friends," says Anapol.

"Unless you had a piece like this where someone is talking about their research into Victorian fashion and style, you wouldn’t know where the roots of that are from."

What is next for Quarter Life is a free text message service powered by the SMS subscription platform Subtext. Exchanging texts with the readers is an opportunity to learn more about user needs and crowdsource topics they want to hear about.

'It's about getting more direct engagement and having people feel they have a hotline for pressing questions," continues Anapol.

"People in this age group are not the typical 'letters-to-the-editor' writers and are not necessarily going to write an email. But they might send a text or respond to a poll."

Interestingly, the text message service is leveraging the phenomenon known as 'Sunday Scaries', the anxiety felt on a Sunday evening about the looming work week ahead.

A weekly text message asks readers what they are worried about or how the team can help them 'win the week'. They can then directly send articles to readers or make a note to commission stories off the back of it.

Over time, Anapol plans to segment text message subscribers into smart lists based on their interests, i.e. relationships and dating, health and fitness. Quarter Life is seen as a good pilot for this strategy because the content speaks to audiences who are often feeling burnt out and fatigued by news on other platforms.

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