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Jan. 31, 2018, 10 a.m.
Audience & Social

Opinary is building new tools to help news orgs use polls to inform their coverage

Can a widget’s worth of reader engagement lead to useful data — and maybe even money? “The whole idea is to give readers and communities a voice within journalism.”

News organizations have spent a lot of time talking to their readers; these days, they’re getting a little bit better at listening. Increased adoption of tools like Hearken and GroundSource over the past two years have shown that more newsrooms understand how direct feedback from readers can help drive their coverage.

Germany-based Opinary has also benefited from this shift in outlook. The company, which develops polling tools that publishers can embed in their articles, recently raised €3 million ($2.7 million) both to build its product and to fund its expansion into the U.S., where it already has a small foothold. In addition to landing most of the top news organizations in Germany, Opinary has attracted the likes of The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, and The Independent in the U.K. and Time, Fortune, Forbes, HuffPost, NBC, and NPR in the U.S. Over 60 media companies are currently using Opinary.

These organizations are also publishing more polls than ever: In the company’s early days, Opinary saw an average of 10 polls published each day. Today, that number is closer to 2,000 across all the newsrooms using the tools.

Opinary CEO Cornelius Frey said that while the company itself has grown, its mission has stayed the same. “The whole idea is to give readers and communities a voice within journalism, and to show a multitude of opinions and views on a topic in a simple way so that it’s easy for users to engage in a differentiated way,” he said. “The static cycle of news production gets broken and users feel invested in the process. It makes a real change in how the newsroom thinks about putting out new pieces.”

Opinary’s earliest efforts at this were Pressekompass and Speedometer, two tools that let users share their thoughts on specific issues — stock performance and policy proposals, for example — and see how their positions compare to that of other readers or analysts.

Frey said that Opinary’s tools work best when they’re part of a process that involves asking readers what they think, then using that feedback to inform future coverage. Over the past few years, more newsrooms have taken advantage of this potential. Stern in Germany, for example, used Opinary to poll readers on their happiness with the results of the German election in September. The site then published those results, digging into how different demographic groups responded. Bild did something similar, printing the result of a poll on Donald Trump in its print edition.

This is an idea that Opinary wants to build on with its “insights dashboard,” which is designed to offer news organizations more granular data on what readers are thinking, but in real-time. Editors can see, for example, which topics are most polarizing for readers, or ones that readers are indifferent to, and use those insights to inform future coverage. “If it’s a situation where people are divided, maybe you would want to put out another explainer piece,” said Frey. “If people aren’t divided and are instead in the middle, you can say ‘maybe this is time to put two opposing opinion pieces out there to give people the chance to take a stance.'”

Opinary is also interested in figuring how out its polling tools can serve as conversion tools for publishers’ newsletters or paid products. Because readers who vote in polls are, by definition, generally more engaged than those that don’t, they’re also likely to be more willing have a deeper relationship with the publisher., for example, recently used Opinary to ask readers whether they would purchase bitcoin. After displaying the results (over 75,000 people have voted so far), asked readers if they were interested in subscribing to the site’s newsletter, or follow it on Instagram. Frey said that this feature was a response to a common complaint among publishers who wanted the tool to offer more than “nice-to-have” engagement metrics.

The company is also exploring monetization options for publishers. Sponsored polls, which it’s already trialed with HuffPost and others, are one way the company is trying to pull this off. The pitch here is similar to the pitch for Opinary overall: Readers who take the polls are more engaged and more likely to be willing to engage with brands. “Right now, there’s so much invasive push advertising — autoplay videos, banners, and page takeovers. This, to us, is something that’s much more like a conversation,” he said.

Distribution, too, is a big focus: While publishers can build their own polls, they can also use ones produced by Opinary itself, which can distribute them to relevant pages across the network of publishers using its tools.

Ultimately, Frey said that Opinary’s mission is to offer news organizations (and, yes, brand advertisers) an alternative to Facebook, both by letting all parties learn a bit more about what drivers readers, and by giving those readers different ways to talk back.

“Facebook offers publishers a fantastic way to have a large following, but the truth is that’s not your audience. It’s Facebook’s audience. You should have a clear way to build your own audience and understand it deeper,” Frey said.

Photo of a polling sign by John Keane used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 31, 2018, 10 a.m.
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