How researchers get heard
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Pardon Me, You Have Four Visitors

Research-driven organizations often see their digital channels as billboards, and their audiences as highway drivers of extreme leisure and curiosity.

In reality, your drive-by audience has extreme urgency — and not to find a rest stop. They have urgent questions. If you can provide them answers — if you can own the answers for their questions — you can begin to own a relationship with them. If not, they will peel off. Therefore: your content, at least for this enormous drive-by audience, should be all about their questions and your answers.

Atlantic 57, the content strategy shop of the company that also publishes The Atlantic magazine, is now saying the same thing in a short report with findings the group has applied to the magazine’s audience acquisition strategy as well as to the strategies of organizations like yours and those I advise.

The Atlantic, says the report, now divides its audience into four audiences: 1) passersby; 2) occasionals; 3) regulars; 4) super fans. These are segmented by a) their frequency of visits to the magazine’s site, but also and more importantly, b) their distinctive behaviors on the site once there.

The overarching strategic goal for the magazine (and, for any content-producing organization) is to make its content more of a habit for its audiences. The Atlantic wants to increase their loyalty to its content by moving them along that continuum and ultimately converting them to a digital subscription.

Your group, undoubtedly, has other goals for its audience than selling a digital subscription. (You do have strategic content goals, don’t you?) And there’s nothing novel about the Atlantic 57 approach — it’s a classic funnel content strategy. What’s impressive is that Atlantic 57 knows each of these audiences well for The Atlantic, has mapped their behaviors and has developed short sets of tailored goals and tactics to move them to the next stage. So it’s not just hand-waving funnel content talk.

For passersby — 80 percent of The Atlantic’s traffic, the goal is to “get their click, then keep them there.”

The tactic: “answer their question and show them more” (through optimizing SEO and surfacing related content). That’s because passersby are still “much more likely to come to you through search” then the other audiences, and likely to come to you through archival content.

Also: visitors coming in from search also “tend to click around more per session than social visitors do, which means more opportunities to engage them with your content and products.” Atlantic 57 says inline links (rather than sidebar related content) work much better for these audiences.

For the next group — the occasionals — you want to “encourage habit-forming behavior.” This is why you offer a newsletter or a podcast — both because it builds the habit, and because audiences with these habits are more likely to subscribe to a paid product. And you want to put calls-to-action for these next to all appropriate related content.

But you don’t have paid products! You’re not a magazine! You don’t have that much content! Your website is old and terrible! You can barely keep up on social!

Yes. But the four kinds of visitors are still on their way over to your organization. If your content strategy isn’t helping you win and keep their attention, your alternative is to try to win that attention anew with each research product you iterate — like most of your colleagues keep trying to do.

The steps recommended in the Atlantic 57 report are not fancy: strong SEO, maintaining relevant archival content, linking inline instead of through side rails, deploying consistent and prominent calls-to-action, committing to strong UX that removes friction from jobs to be done, and treating your biggest fans in special ways. These have been best practices since Jesus left Chicago.

I’m consistently surprised how many organizations resist them, looking instead for the next shiny object. For a better billboard instead of a business tool.

Takeaway: Start here. For 80 percent of your audience, you should pivot to answering their questions and away from foregrounding your research concentrations, your vision statement, or your impressive research-to-policy philosophy.

BTW: I help research organizations think through these transitions. Drop me a note if yours or one you know might want to discuss that.