Broken: Rule 3 - Find your niches

Our five-part mini-series on how to succeed in the next era of content discovery

We’re now on part three of our five-day mini-series sharing five rules to succeed in the new era of content discovery. We’ve looked at understanding audience attention, and developing a value proposition; today’s rule combines the two into a focused content strategy:

Rule 3 - Find your niches

We’re big fans of The Rebooting, a newsletter about ‘sustainable media’ from ex-Digiday President Brian Morrissey. He’s been saying for a while that digital publishing is moving from the big Traffic-era brands like Buzzfeed or Vice towards smaller, niche publications, and the first step in making this shift is to be honest with yourself about the scale of your audience: “A niche focus takes a certain humility. It means accepting you cannot be all things to all people, and that most people will never know or care about what you’re doing.”

Buzzfeed’s leadership team recently admitted that depending on third-party distribution has ultimately been the wrong strategy. Buzzfeed publisher Dao Nguyen went as far as saying that those audiences on other platforms were not just worthless, but actually costly:

“BuzzFeed Inc. has been, from the beginning, premised on the idea of a large network that is powerful and valuable. But what has happened in the past two years is that with the fragmentation of audiences, the advertising market challenges and that squeeze from the big tech platforms, the network’s value, and specifically the value of distributed-only audiences, has been rapidly diminishing, and now it’s approaching zero, and some might argue that its value is in fact negative.”

So in this new era of content discovery, you should accept that you can’t be everything to everyone. Focus on creating something really valuable for a smaller audience instead. At Storythings, we say that building large audiences is a lot like making a patchwork quilt - you get scale not all at once with a broad proposition, but by slowly and patiently stitching together smaller, niche audiences instead.

The business models of niche audiences are diverse and complex. If you’re a B2B publisher, there can be direct monetisation opportunities through paid subscriptions or events, but it’s more likely that you’re using your content formats as part of a funnel to wider value opportunities further down the line. This is where targeting and being valuable to a niche audience really matters. According to research shared by the LinkedIn B2B Institute, only 5% of your audience are actively buying or procuring at any one point in time. A one-off campaign might raise awareness at scale, but if 95% of the people you reach aren’t in the position to buy, that’s not very effective. It’s much more effective to focus on brand building than campaigns, as regular contact with your audience will increase your salience - you’ll be more likely to be top of mind when they are in the position to buy.

A good tool:

When we work on audience development with our clients, we start by asking one question - “Who are your first 1000 subscribers?” This question does two things - it helps you focus on meeting the needs of a relatively small initial audience (or audiences - you might reach your first 1000 through ten different niches of 100 people), and it focuses on a tangible action from these audiences - subscribing, or whatever action is the best signal that your audience really finds value in what you’re doing. Impressions and views aren’t good enough for this - the metrics you need to focus on to grow beyond your first 1000 fans need to show how your audience get value from your content.

You might be thinking that this is hard to do when you have stakeholders wanting to measure audiences in the hundreds of thousands or millions, but there are ways to do it. We’ve had lots of experience working with clients from small arts organisations to global B2B brands, so if you need help getting buy-in for your new strategy, we’d love to talk.

A good example:

A few years ago we developed a podcast series for Pearson telling the stories of diverse communities working in STEM education. As part of our audience research, we heard that teachers wanted resources that celebrated diverse STEM heroes. So we worked with emerging female illustrators around the world to create 8 posters celebrating STEM pioneers in their countries. After a while, the posters got picked up and shared in hundreds of STEM teacher communities, and we got requests to translate the posters into 7 languages, including Mandarin. They’ve now been downloaded over a million times, but that million has been driven by hundreds of smaller communities.

Even though the project is 5 years old, we still see the posters turning up every year during Women In STEM week and International Women’s Day, as new niche communities discover and use them. In fact, googling our project for this article I discovered this brilliant poster series from the Computer Vision Center in Barcelona from March this year (many years after we first launched our work!), using our poster format to celebrate their own diverse STEM pioneers. Seeing different niche communities value and repurpose your content is a brilliant sign that you’re creating something valuable.

Go deeper:

We really love The Audiencers, a newsletter and event brand focusing on building sustainable and valuable audiences for media organisations. Although their focus is on news media, there are lessons there for anyone trying to build an audience.

Jacob Donnelly, publisher of the wildly successful daily newsletter Morning Brew, also runs A Media Operator, a brilliant resource on the changing business models of digital media.

Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day is a brilliant newsletter about digital culture. He’s been sharing his experiments with building his audience as he weans himself off social platforms. I love his ‘one good paragraph’ approach to social - not worrying about building audiences there, but finding the best teaser content to send out in case it can bring new audiences to your own site.

That was Rule 3. Catch up on Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 of this series on how content discovery is broken, and a quick summary of this week’s 5-part mini-series: the intro is here, Rule 1 is here, and Rule 2 here.

Get more from us in the and .

See you tomorrow for rule number 4: Build content formats that become habits. You know you want to come back - see you then!