How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Is The Conversation Now Worth Talking About?

Traffic to The Conversation — that written-by-academics-for-everyone-else site that’s always been a port of last resort for expert opinion content — is way up since the beginning of the pandemic, says Columbia Journalism Review.

“Way up” = 81 million page views in April for all The Conversation sites plus republication by other sites — double that of April 2019. (The Conversation makes all its content free to republish elsewhere, so your Conversation piece could theoretically end up in The Guardian or CNN or AP, among others.) Visits to all sites of The Conversation alone (US, UK, Australia, Africa and others) during April were 38.1 million — more than double the visitors from April of last year.

That’s a lot of eyeballs. So should you reconsider publishing in The Conversation? Is it A-list instead of D-list? Broadway instead of Boise?

That’s the question The Conversation would like researchers to be asking.

But it’s the wrong question — especially if you’re running a research-driven organization or institution.

The CJR piece — weirdly, for a piece appearing in a vaunted journalism review — reads like a pitch letter for funders of The Conversation. It doesn’t tell us why The Conversation’s traffic is up, or which audience segments the additional traffic might represent, or whether the traffic leads to change, or whether traffic is even a good proxy for impact, or even how much traffic the average piece attracts. And we only hear from editors at The Conversation, who tell us how vital and important its coverage is in a world of politicized information and pseudoscience. You know, like every other journalism site.

But who cares? Traffic is up, God damn it! It’s a great journalism feel-good story! Look — here’s a piece that’s been read more than 900,000 times! Here’s an author whose piece got her dozens of media interviews!

This is casino thinking. Few authors will win. And it’s the wrong game to play if you’re interested in translating your research-driven insights into action.

When I’m helping my researcher clients think through where they are going to pitch opinion content, we never talk about traffic. We talk about fit and audience and impact. We ask the following questions:

  1. Would publishing in this outlet fit your content strategy and enhance your brand — in essence, what people would expect of an authority of your standing?
  2. Would publishing in this outlet help reach your target audiences?
  3. Would publishing in this outlet impress people in your target audience when you or someone else shares the content, even if these target audience members didn’t see it in or hear it directly from that outlet?
  4. Will publishing in this outlet catalyze a wider conversation?

For The Conversation, the answers to all these questions are still usually no. Which means The Conversation is still a no.

While The Conversation’s business model varies across its regional sites, many of the sites give preferential treatment to authors from partner universities of The Conversation as part of their funding agreements with those universities. The Conversation has never been able to shake the perception, therefore, that it’s pay-for-play.

That perception isn’t helped by the actual quality of the content. While it’s improved a bit since the US site launched in 2014, the vast majority of The Conversation US’s content still feels forced, stiff and minor league. (They use software to ensure that their content can be read “by a smart 16-year-old,” which might explain the stylistic stiffness.)

Far too often, the pieces read too much like experts clumsily trying to fit their expertise to a news peg or promote a new study, rather than providing genuinely new ways of seeing. The Conversation US is the content equivalent of the church picnic sack race — no winners, just participation ribbons for everyone.

The Conversation Australia published reader survey results last year of whom its content reaches — you stand a better than even chance if you publish there of being contacted by other media for follow-up. (It’s telling that The Conversation US has no similar survey results on its site.) But because The Conversation’s content is so general — essentially, it’s a site selling not topical expertise, but the idea that academic expertise on any topic is necessarily better than other kinds of expertise — it’s not an option for reaching a specific policy audience, for instance, much less impressing them.

Traffic is a vanity metric, not a proxy for impact. While you’re spraying and praying with The Conversation, other researchers and research-driven organizations have a content strategy. They have done the hard work of figuring out what they’re saying that’s unique, whom they want to reach with those unique insights, which vehicles will be most effective in reaching those key audiences, and how often and over what period of time they’re prepared to say it in order to be heard.

If you’re just getting your feet wet in opinion writing — or you’re writing for its Australia or Africa sites, where its brand is strong — The Conversation might be worth considering.

Otherwise, I’m still not talking about it.