Prior to starting at Gulf News, I had never worked in publishing before.
Go back a few years, they were a client of mine at an SEO agency called Sekari and we were involved with the site redesign. And we helped with their new classifieds sites but that was about it.
No real thought or strategy in relation to news, media or publishing. Just some guidance on URL structure and meta data along with some keyword ideas.
Fast forward to 2016 when I became an employee. It was a brave new world at that time and not just for me!
I was on board to provide expert advice on SEO.
I ended up being the go-to for pretty much all analytics (the sheer depth of data was staggering) and also a source of strategic content advice, for all publications. I didn’t just wear many hats – it was a constant wardrobe change every single day!
My work extended far beyond the humble news portal (gulfnews.com) with its 40 million monthly pageviews.
I came in just a few short weeks before getthat.com would launch (it was their effort to consolidate all classifieds sites into one). And I also helped out with the websites for each and every magazine in the stable.
Suffice to say, I had my hands full every single day but they were always fantastic days which were never alike (cliche, but it’s true).
The experience I most enjoyed and the one I reflect on almost daily, was my time in the newsroom as the first and only Audience Editor for Gulf News.
I had never worked as a journalist. The newsroom had never had any sort of audience development strategy. So this was completely foreign territory for everyone.
But it was exciting and incredibly rewarding for me.
The beauty of SEO is that it can be applied to any website, in any niche, anywhere in the world. It works for videos, apps, images and written content. It’s so versatile, it’s like a Swiss army knife for the digital world.
Regular readers of my blog and emails will know that I bang on about this all the time. SEO can be applied just about anywhere.
My goal as the Audience Editor for Gulf News was to leverage my SEO expertise to ‘get more people to the site and keep them there for longer’.
Simple enough, right?
SEO is all about improving visibility in search engines to draw in more visitors.
So I had that bit sorted out. I’ve been doing this for over a decade. I may just have a bit of a clue about how this works…
The bit about keeping them there for longer was going to be more of a challenge, given the nature of news websites.
I had never worked in news and from my own experience, I usually went to websites directly or to whichever site came up in Google for whatever news related query I had typed in – (personal experience is particularly important to draw on as a digital marketer).
At the time when I migrated to the newsroom, we were knee deep in the redesign of gulfnews.com so my biggest challenge was trying not to hack the old site to bits in order to get my work done.
Results still needed to be achieved after all, despite all the failings of the old site.
I knew what the new site would look like and how it would address every single pain point accumulated over the years.
But I had to work with what I had on hand and what I had was a slow, clunky, crowded site that was hard to navigate and riddled with bugs.
It had been chopped to bits over the years with lots of things stuck on here and there and all held together with sticky tape. It happens, when you have such a huge complex website that’s being updated every minute of the day.
DATA & TOOLS
For me, data was critical. I had to dig deep and see what was happening and what we needed to do to improve.
— Side note: read how the Audience Editor role turned me into a data geek.
I didn’t have any set KPIs or targets to achieve. Only to ‘do better’ than we already were.
We were using Parse.ly at the time and this was really helpful for live tracking of content on the site.
Not everyone used it or even looked at the big screen TV with real time data that flickered throughout the day.
But I lived in it and had it running full screen on my second monitor to ensure I never missed a thing.
I wasn’t used to this though. At most, I was used to having a real time dashboard from Google Analytics back when I worked at Dejan SEO in Brisbane and even then, it was for our own website (popular but numbers weren’t incredible!).
Back at Gulf News, every morning I’d talk about performance from the previous day and would point out any outliers, interesting tidbits and just generally explain what and why.
If there was anything the social media team had done (extra boosts or spin off content), I’d talk about the impact that had on the site.
I only had about 5 minutes to do this each morning but this was all new to the newsroom and me, so this was fine to begin with. I’m all for brevity but discussing online performance is more than a 5 minute affair.
I had setup daily reports from Parse.ly to give me a snapshot and I’d print it out and check GA and social media to help put more context into the numbers.
Most times, we knew why certain articles did well – topic was interesting or timing was critical.
Sometimes, random articles would pop up in the top 5 or 10 and there had to be further analysis.
Often it was just because of a boost on Facebook (more on this later). But as was the case at Gulf News, there were lots of random things happening…randomly.
At the same time that I was wading through the data from Parse.ly, I was getting approached by IO Technologies and Chartbeat for demos of their software which competed with Parse.ly.
So we ended up running them alongside Parse.ly and Google Analytics in an attempt to find the best tool that provided the most accurate data and insights.
I reveled in my position where I had access to such a wealth of data.
I know it’s not good practice to run so many tools at the same time but we were building a great new website and we needed to use the best tool to help the newsroom make the most of the new website.
We were in essence, bringing the newsroom into a whole new world of data driven journalism and for that, we had to make sure our data sources were spot on and insightful.
It wasn’t uncommon to find me in Parse.ly, IO, Chartbeat, GA, GSC, Crowdtangle and even Fanpage Karma. At the same time!
But in saying this, I think there’s no special tool that does it all and they’re all much the same in that they collect data and let you customise how it gets displayed, to some extent.
Ultimately you’d need to select the tool that best delivers the data and insights that matter to you and allow you to make quicker, smarter decisions.
You need a smart team and people with skin in the game too.
There were many times where I would make suggestions that made sense to me based on the data, only to have some senior staff advise otherwise – based on previous experience.
All part of the journey though, for me, a non-journalist.
I quickly began to understand how everything came together in the newsroom despite having never worked in news before.
So to me, it didn’t matter which tool I preferred. It all came down to what worked best for the newsroom.
Given that many journalists weren’t accustomed to such data-led production, it was imperative that we chose something that made it super simple to understand what to do next or to understand what’s happened and why.
Chartbeat won in the end though I personally preferred IO. I remain a fan of Parse.ly and think it’s doing great things with Currents.
Just thinking about all the tabs I had open and tools I was logged into with data blinking across all the screens I could see gives me shivers.
I can’t begin to explain how much fun it was allowing myself to be engulfed in data!
This is what I absolutely loved about being an Audience Editor.
CONTEXT & NUANCE
One time at about 5pm, we suddenly saw an epic spike in traffic for an article that was some days old.
It related to a story we wrote about an incident in India. It wasn’t terribly groundbreaking or anything and when the story had gone live, the numbers were decent but nothing amazing.
Of course when we suddenly saw the story spiking, we had to know why. So I did some quick digging.
Turns out, all the traffic was coming from India and specifically from WhatsApp (thankfully it was shared with a WhatsApp UTM code!). And pretty much all traffic was coming via mobile.
That didn’t really help us do anything further or figure out why it spiked as and when it did.
All we could figure was that it was perhaps shared in a very large group or multiple groups and it simply went from there. India is a pretty big place and WhatsApp is huge there.
Again, this is the sort of thing I loved about being knee deep in data, figuring out what’s happening and then shaping the next steps.
FURTHER CONTENT DEVELOPMENT
A classic case was when Skype was suddenly blocked in the UAE.
Naturally, this was huge news as everyone was talking about it and social media was set alight with everyone losing their mind.
What no one else realised was that as a result of this block, people were suddenly searching for alternatives to Skype and how to bypass the ban, in particular, using VPNs.
I noticed that an old article about VPN use in the UAE had suddenly spiked.
Naturally we were able to figure out why however the article’s content was out of date (last published in 2012!).
I got the web editors to rewrite the article to reflect latest developments (and use relevant keywords), throw in some links to relevant articles including the new ones about Skype being blocked AND I got them to link to the VPN article from the Skype ban news stories.
This made news for some time and as of writing this blog post in Feb 2019, remains a big discussion point in the UAE.
That VPN guide is great piece of content that merely needs to be updated as and when there are required changes.
It’s something that was useful to people at the time Skype got banned and it’s still relevant now in early 2019 because it was all about VPNs, how they work and what the legalities are in the UAE.
Which leads me to my next point:
I realised one thing about news – some days you can get by with celebrity news, Trump or local info like public holidays.
And these work well. You should see what happens when there’s mere speculation about public holidays in the UAE!
But what happens on slow days?
My morning updates would be milder than boiled chicken ,that’s what happened.
In the era of fake news, it’s so easy for people to rely on this to boost traffic. And it’s something employed by other news outlets – mostly with clickbait headlines.
Gulf News thankfully wasn’t into this. In fact, we’d go as far as breaking a news item slower than other news sites for the sake of accuracy.
This often worked in our favour even if it did hurt not being first to market. Integrity matters more than speed when it comes to news though I will admit, finding that balance isn’t always easy. You just have to work faster!
But putting fake news and clickbait aside, one of the ways I found to counter slow days was to rely on some of our killer evergreen content pieces which always worked a treat, in particular on social media.
The key is understanding seasonality and also something as simple as time of day and days of the week.
People are interested in different things on Sunday mornings (start of the work week in UAE) vs what they’re interested in on a Wednesday afternoon. We found that promoting movie times and weekend activities worked a lot better closer to the end of the week. It might seem obvious but you don’t always see the forest for the trees sometimes.
So this is the sort of things I enjoyed about being the first and only Audience Editor at Gulf News.
Now as fun as it was, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. In fact, it was a perpetual uphill battle. Here’s why:
- loads of old school journos in the newsroom being forced to think web first, instead of print first – this is still a hard concept for many to grasp and work with.
- print first mentality meant there was a major disconnect between it and web – so much so, there’d be different imagery for the same article – one for print, one for web.
- not being a journo really didn’t go down well with half the newsroom. the other half that didn’t mind were young and understood the web, and didn’t see me as a threat
- I was seen as a threat because I was suddenly showing numbers and data which some felt could implicate them – this was such a terrible misunderstanding – my job was to help the newsroom do their jobs, better.
- Given that the UAE has a very large community from the Indian subcontinent, a lot of our news was about things happening in India – which meant we copped it hard on social media for being ‘another’ Indian news outlet.
- Further to this, I tried hard to dissuade the newsroom from publishing so many things from India – mostly because it was either some sort of train derailment or to my disgust, another case of violence against women – and as much as this is abhorrent, it’s not in line with the news that Gulf News should be putting out. This was a hard one to tackle is something they still grapple with today.
- In general, there was resistance to having an audience editor. And that really never died down. I’d make some inroads some days, and other days be blocked out. It was tiring. But I fought hard to give the team access to the best tools so they could learn, grow and become better journos.
- And that being said, I realised finally that although I was dragging the thirsty horse to the water, it simply wasn’t going to drink it.
I’m proud of where the site is at right now and how the newsroom is using data it now has access to, with its brand new mobile friendly super fast loading website.
There’s still a long way to go in terms of writing better headlines and finding content that truly pushes the needle.
But this is what makes audience development so much fun – there’s never a finish line.
You just keep going and going.