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April 14, 2010, 1:22 p.m.

“Intensely engaged followers”: Joel Kramer on MinnPost’s focused audience-building strategy

Joel Kramer came right out and said it: He discriminates when it comes to his readers. MinnPost cares more about repeat readers than stray visitors, the site’s editor said during the “Building Online Communities” session at the ASNE NewsNow Ideas Summit this week; it’s chosen depth over breadth in its strategy of audience cultivation.

“What we’re trying to do is build a community of intensely engaged followers,” Kramer said. And while, yes, “user engagement” and its iterations seem to be the unofficial theme of this year’s ASNE event, Kramer wasn’t simply referring to engagement in the most common, “traffic-plus-interaction” sense of the term. For MinnPost, engagement is repetition. It’s commitment. It’s what Gawker Media has termed, simply, “affection.”

The strategy, for MinnPost, is a financial as much as an editorial one: It’s about concentrating impact, but also about monetizing that impact. The outlet’s ultimate goal in developing a core readership, Kramer said, is to “convert that community into enough money to sustain the journalism.”

It’s a more nuanced approach to a pageview-focused perspective on audience cultivation; last year, in a piece for our sister publication Nieman Reports, Kramer noted that “traffic to our web site, MinnPost.com, is critical to our financial success.” That’s still the case, of course; but a work-your-core caveat marks a shift in that traffic-is-traffic sensibility — and, as far as the outlet’s reach-out to advertisers is concerned, a shift in the eyeballs-are-eyeballs sensibility. It’s a commercial truth as well as a journalistic one: Not all readers are created equal.

The intense-engagement strategy makes sense in the context of MinnPost’s particular fusion of funding streams: A nonprofit, the outlet also relies on ad revenue — and on member donations that it hopes, eventually, will increase in number and put MinnPost on a path to sustainability. But: eventually. At this point, “the vast majority of our unique visitors are passers-by,” Kramer noted. The goal is to increase the ratio of repeat visitors to one-time ones.

How to do that is the big question — though engaging people with MinnPost’s journalism via the get-them-where-they-are approach will likely play a big role in it. “Social media, comment, and other forms of engagement with the audience have a tremendous effect on audience-building,” Kramer noted. “Facebook is the number-one referrer to our site not counting search — and we hardly were on it at all eight months ago.”

Comments have also been a boon. The site’s ban of anonymous comments, Kramer said, was “controversial” at its inception — “and it probably depresses the traffic,” he allowed — but it maintains MinnPost’s mission, he said, and leads to a more civil environment on the site. Which is another route to constructive community engagement.

And then there’s getting-readers-where-they-are in the more literal sense. “Probably the number-one builder of intensity is face-to-face contact, not online,” Kramer said. He mentioned the annual MinnRoast — the site’s version of the Gridiron Dinner — and some other in-person events that are targeted, in particular, at reaching readers under 40. The outlet recently polled young people about effective ways to get them excited about MinnPost, its content, and its community, Kramer noted. “The first thing they said was, ‘Hold events at bars.'”

POSTED     April 14, 2010, 1:22 p.m.
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