Launched in Australia in 2011, The Conversation has grown to become a global news organisation covering a broad range of news topics including business, medicine, health, science and more.
A key difference between The Conversation and most traditional news publishers is their mission, which is to get expertise from academics and deliver it to a wider, more general public, Cassimally told participants during WAN-IFRA’s recent Digital Media Africa conference.
“We have around 150 editors in our different newsrooms all over the world. They reach out to various academics and work with them on various stories,” he said.
This content is then free for others to re-use under a Creative Commons agreement, he added.
For their first two years, The Conversation was based in Australia, but they have since added editions in several other countries, including US, UK, and parts of Africa. In September, they launched a Brazil edition.
The Conversation was also a participant in WAN-IFRA’s Table Stakes Europe programme, a performance-driven change management initiative for local and regional news organisations, supported by the Google News Initiative Digital Growth Programme.
Reader donations on the rise
The main members of The Conversation have been universities, Cassimally said. However, they have increasingly had readers donating to them as well, and are now using a donation model that is similar to the Guardian’s.
“We don’t have a paid subscription for our readers, but they can donate,” he added.
In addition to the intuition of their editors and the academics who write for them, Cassimally said they are adding audience insights to better address the needs of their audience.
“Basically all of this helps support the editors to create empathy with the audience: Bringing the audience closer to the newsroom, or bringing the newsroom closer to the audience. And when we bring them closer, the idea is for the editorial team to then be better able to address the needs of the audiences,” he said.
“To add value for people, we need to make sure that we are addressing the needs of people, addressing the interests of people, and addressing the problems that people have. Only when we are able to do this, will we be creating content that is really valuable to them,” Cassimally said.
Creating a series to target young professionals
Last year, a small team in The Conversation’s UK newsroom was created to create content aimed at a specific audience: Young professionals based in the UK.
The project was called Quarter Life and consisted mainly of an ongoing series of articles specifically targeted at that audience.
“Very quickly we discovered that the series was working really well across different metrics, but especially across engagement,” Cassimally said.
“Engagement was what we were looking at because engagement is a proxy for value. So the idea is if people are spending more time on the web page, or people are scrolling further down, those are signals that people are probably finding value in the content.”
The Conversation saw a 55 to 65 percent increase in user engagement on social with their Quarter Life articles compared to their base line, which was other articles on their site.
“User engagement went up, and it went up because the content we were producing was really focused on being valuable to that audience. Just by bringing the newsroom closer to the audience, we practically overnight were able to produce content that was more valuable to the audience,” he said.
Building on success with other services, formats
Based on the success of the series, the team began thinking of other services and formats they could use to further engage these young proesssionals.
“Some of the things that worked included topic-specific ebooks, so we repackaged content around specific topics that we knew would be valuable to them, and those ebooks were quite successful in terms of downloads,” Cassimally said.
They also started a text-messaging channel, which allowed two-way communication with editors from the team.
The Conversation is now using Quarter Life as a template to build similar projects at their other newsrooms around the world.
Going forward, they are looking at launching an in-person event around a specific topic of interest to that target audience, and “bringing in those academics who have expertise about those topics who can contribute to the events as well,” he said.
Growing engagement through newsletters, quizzes
Two other ways The Conversation is aiming to boost engagement is through their newsletters and a quiz they launched last year.
Globally, The Conversation has around three dozen newsletters, and close to 1 million subscribers, Cassimally said.
“We know that niche newsletters are a really good way to build retention. Newsletter readers are a more loyal segment of our audiences, and they contribute to our donations campaign way more than a non-newsletter subscriber would,” he said.
In addition, he noted they have found that their niche newsletters have great engagement with their subscribers compared to the more general daily newsletters.
About a year ago, The Conversation’s UK newsroom launched a quiz product that Cassimally said has been quite successful. “The retention numbers are especially worthy,” he said.
Each week they send an email saying the new quiz is available and he said that has the highest open rate of all the emails that The Conversation sends out.
They have also done a test to raise donations through the quiz, and just by adding a simple donation button, drove some 80 donations in two weeks, totalling US$ 3,000.
“It was literally one button at the end of a quiz and that was it,” Cassimally said.
The money raised equates to the cost of creating the quiz for one of their editions for about half a year.
Looking ahead, he said they are planning to scale the user needs model to more of their newsrooms.
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