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“Is Audience Development just a polite way of saying ‘Growth Hacking’?”

by Jack Riley, Head of Audience Development for The Huffington Post UK and AOL …is a question I was asked last week, on a panel at the AOP Transforming your content with data forum chaired by Digital Spy’s David Moynihan about the use of data in publishing businesses. It didn’t come from the audience, who were mostly keen to know about how to use data and analytics organisationally, but from a fellow panellist who was keen to get more into the troubled semantics of the emerging discipline of ‘making a digital publishing business bigger, quickly’. I was there to talk about how our cross disciplinary team, working very hard to attack the problem of how to grow our AOL sites in the UK from a lot of different angles, had got the Huffington Post from 4.9m multiplatform UK UVs last June (the month I joined), to 8.9m UK UVs in January (we use Comscore for external reporting). We’ve called that approach Audience Development.

Audience Development is tricky to define, but I wasn’t prepared to have it conflated with growth hacking and be done with it. Firstly, growth hacking is a clumsy, showy name that, as Emily Delmont notes well here does a disservice to hacking and marketing (in a pure product/startup context, marketing covers what in a publishing context is achieved by editorial). Secondly, hacking brings to mind cracking the code to a system and applying a quick fix that somehow defies the laws of what should be possible. In my experience, there are very few quick fixes like that around in publishing; most successes involve teamwork, and time, and above all hard work.

So, my reply was that vice versa – growth hacking is an impolite way of saying Audience Development.

So… what is Audience Development?

For the panel, I defined Audience Development as a data-driven approach to growth and strategy, operating in the space between product, editorial and the directly revenue generating (sales, partnerships, business development etc) areas of the business. That strategy might be to support a particular brand, or to deliver a certain type of engagement (eg video views). It might be to grow a specific audience or to improve a certain product. However you apply it, an organisation investing in Audience Development is saying that it values and it wants to be judged by data, which for a publisher is, even now, not always a given. The Audience Development team is not only where that data resides, but more specifically it’s also where it’s possible to analyse it, find patterns within it, compare it to what we expect and hope to see and to learn and act on what we’ve measured. Not all of the data is internal, and the actions taken because of it aren’t always obviously product-based or editorial.

Since successful digital businesses need to be internally highly networked and externally highly iterative, to facilitate lots of change happening very quickly an organisation needs a centre of gravity that can pull data together to form and then test a strategy quickly and with an eye on the bigger picture. In a publishing context, as I said on the panel, this dovetails neatly with two trends -

1) Changes to product development associated with the growth of lean approaches to product, where analytics are required to validate iterative product changes, and the necessity of “earned” and “owned” user acquisition models. (It’s a classic mistake for publishers transitioning to digital, and a hangover from print bundling, to attempt ‘build it and they will come’ products; one of Audience Development’s roles is to encourage product teams always to consider how and why people will use a product in the real world)

2) The necessity of data-driven approaches to editorial. Another thing the panel touched on was the debate recently about the use of metrics in the newsroom. That’s a whole post and more in its own right, but suffice to say I am firmly in the camp of greater access to data, for lots of reasons, not least of which is that it brings journalists closer to their readers.

There isn’t an area of the publishing business on which this isn’t brought to bear, but it was good to talk about and debate this broad idea of the subject in more detail. My honest belief is that any publisher without an Audience Development or equivalent cross-disciplinary team at its centre will really struggle in the next few years in an environment where content, technology, user behaviour and monetisation are changing so quickly.

Jack Riley is Head of Audience Development for The Huffington Post UK and AOL