Okay, sort of. Newsrooms already try to read people’s minds but don’t have objective metrics for it. From the start of the editorial process (what does “the audience” want/need?) to the analysis of the results (why don’t they scroll to the bottom?), it’s a guessing game as to what users are thinking. But there’s a new way to bridge that gap and measure audience opinion like never before. I’ll get to that below. First, let me tell you about monkeys.

Your Audience Is Human

Believe it or not, I know a thing or two about monkeys.

I spent August of 2013 studying primatology in Kenya. One of the key debates in primatology is around anthropomorphization, or ascribing human attributes to the animal you’re studying. One side of the debate goes so far as to say that a primate in the wild is not “scratching its armpit” as that might imply it has an itch there. Instead, a primatologist might say a primate is “making a scratching motion against its underarm.”

In general, this makes sense. Primatologists cannot ask the monkeys if they have itchy armpits so they don’t want to make assumptions that they do.

Luckily, in journalism, your audience is human. You don’t have to guess if they have itchy armpits. You can just ask them if they have itchy armpits.

The more readers you ask, the more a subjective interpretation can transform into an objective metric: what your community-at-large is thinking.

Measuring Opinions En Masse and Over Time

This is a hypothetical armpit itchiness trend graph shows a steady level of itchy armpits across half of the audience while depicting an increase of readers with resolutely unitchy armpits.

The method Opinary has identified to engage normally passive users creates an opportunity to tune into what a newsroom’s audience is thinking and debating like never before. Above, you see how we would visualize opinion trends over time on the question of armpit itchiness. Here are a few real world examples:

(Date formats in DD/MM/YYYY)

Here’s how Opinary visualizes trending audience polarization:

(Pardon the German. U.S. publisher dashboards are in English, obviously.)

Here how Opinary visualizes trending audience agreement:

(Again, pardon the German. U.S. publisher dashboards are in English, obviously.)

What Does This Mean For A Newsroom

With ways to engage readers in conversation in new ways, Opinary has found the secret sauce to get users to share their opinions and enter into a deeper exchange with the newsroom. These users are human. Newsroom rely on these humans. This is a platform for newsrooms to serve their communities better by understanding what they think and how content influences their lives.

The questions that shape a newsroom’s mission aren’t just for the newsroom anymore. If your audience is not a part of your mission, then you’re behind the curve. Use Opinary to ask and listen like never before.

Reach me at simon@opinary.com.

This is a picture of the Balloon Saloon on a Tribeca-street corner in Lower Manhattan. Blocks away from the World Trade Center’s high-end retail mall, the Balloon Saloon specializes in serving a sliver of New York City’s population.

There are 1.6 million people living in Manhattan. Around 500,000 people live on the southern half of island, within range of the Balloon Saloon. Sure–the store might serve the other boroughs and even parts of New Jersey. But what proportion of that population are customers of the Balloon Saloon? That’s a rhetorical question, but it’s safe to say it’s small.

The Balloon Saloon has found a community to serve in the 1.6 million-person haystack of NYC. How can news organizations find communities to serve within their wider audience, whether it’s 10,000 readers or 10 million?

An example of finding a community in a haystack.

Ask A Question

The answer: ask a question.

All relationships start with a conversation. Conversations start with a question: “Hi, how are you?” or “Are you from around here?” or “How has the Trump presidency affected you?”

That last question is there to make the point that newsrooms and journalists are ultimately in conversation with the public they serve. The process of reporting news is actually answering questions reporters and journalists assume audiences have. Things like “Am I being hoodwinked by any of the stores I frequent or brands I buy?” or “How did the town council vote on that ordinance?” or “Is the president putting his business interests before public interests?”

What newsrooms often fail to realize is that their reporting is not the end of the conversation. It is a prelude to a much larger public discussion and debate. Therefore, it is a newsroom’s moral responsibility to try to facilitate a constructive conversation around these issues by asking questions of their readers.

It is also in their editorial and business interests, because it is by asking these questions that newsrooms can find communities in their haystacks. Here’s an example:

Alabamians and Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Nearly 1 in 4 users who saw this question left their opinion on the first day of voting.

AL.com built and ran this Opinary poll this week, asking their readers if Attorney General Jeff Sessions should resign over undisclosed conversations with Russia. The engagement rate on this poll on the first day of voting was the second highest in the Opinary network, at just about 25%.

What that means is that AL.com has found a community in their haystack of 13 million monthly users.

Admittedly, it would have been safe to assume that residents from Session’s home state would have a lot to say on the matter. But this is an example of how asking a question and listening to your audience can a) potentially blow your mind if opinion trends are unexpected and b) help push editorial and business development in a new direction.

How does a question like this inform strategy? Well now there seems to be an editorial and business case for…

  • a news product with a focus on Sessions
  • events to facilitate discussion among AL.com readers on this question
  • an opportunity to find the 5% of readers in middle and ask them about their nuanced opinion

With this process, you’ve found a community to serve by asking a question, seeing an engaged response to the question, and ideating around how to serve the community that responded.

Questions Are the Answer

I believe that it is in service to the public that journalists and newsrooms can find meaning and mission but also revenue to support that mission. Questions are the answer to finding that mission. The first stage is to deepen our relationship with the audience and the first step in that process is to ask a question. Find the answer to your questions by asking those questions of others. What do you have to lose?

Opinary is an audience engagement and insights platform engaging 25 million users across the U.K. and Germany through partnerships with Europe’s leading publishers; among them is The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, Spiegel, BILD, and The Huffington Post’s German and U.K. sites.

(Catch up on Opinary’s work in Europe on Nieman Lab.)

We think that newsrooms have to start conversations and not just drive clicks and page views. It is in conversation with one another that we can begin bridging divides, understanding each other, and building engaged and loyal communities.

Comments sections have not necessarily revealed this potential. Maintaining constructive dialogue in comments sections hampers newsroom resources while serving just 1 percent of their audience.

By reinventing the comments section, Opinary is giving newsrooms that opportunity. We’ve turned leaving a response to a question from a two-handed, keyboard tapping affair to something you can do with the swipe of your thumb (or forefinger — we don’t judge).

We’ve changed the way users interact with content online, adding opinions to comments, clicks, shares, and likes as a format for engagement.

As we expand into the U.S. news and media ecosystem, we’re looking to give our tools to engagement-minded reporters and newsrooms so they can begin interacting with their audiences in new ways. Meanwhile, we’ll do the work of buttering up CEOs, CCOs, and publishers to officially hop on board the engagement train.

How It Works

We found out early on in our endeavor to transform engagement that few readers have comments, but most have opinions.

So, we developed an interactive and easy way for users to share those opinions:

Users can click and drag the avatar to share their nuanced opinion with newsrooms and the rest of the audience. Those little heads are our filter bubble bursters. More on that below.

A user reads content on — in this case — The Guardian, and they are prompted with a question about the topic in the article. In the same thumb-swiping motion that they use to scroll, users add their voice to hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of other opinions.

Those little heads on the poll are the filter bubble bursters. Click on them to have your filter bubble popped:

Its as easy to use for publishing partners, too. Building a poll takes just under one minute and embeds as easily as a YouTube video or Tweet.

Lets take a closer. This time on The Independent:

This isn’t just an idea, either. A case study we did with publishing partner Huffington Post U.K. found that Opinary polls boosted engagement metrics like time on page and decreased bounce rates.

Furthermore, the engagement rate for Opinary polls is 16% across our European publisher community.

Check out this nifty slide from our deck that shows how legit we are.

We’re not just reinventing comments sections, either. What Opinary is doing is getting multitudes of typically passive users to engage with the news. We build engagement momentum; getting readers (ourselves included) used to engaging with content and in public discourse in general.

Join The Launch Community

Now let us tell you why we’re taking a communal approach to our U.S. expansion:

We are on a mission to help make your audience part of your mission statement. Our goal for the year is to give our U.S. publisher community the tools to uplift the voices of 100 million U.S. users. We want to give newsrooms the opportunity to listen to broad swaths of their audience like never before. It’s time to find out what the communities you are reporting for are really thinking.

So, we’re giving away our tools for free. (No, seriously: free.) Here’s how it will work:

  1. Fill out this form.
  2. We’ll create a login for your entire company to use. Don’t keep it to yourself, though! Share it with your colleagues!
  3. We’ll email you the login information and a video tutorial showing you how to build polls. Want an in-person introduction? Just let us know!
  4. You’ll receive pre-built Opinary polls delivered to your inbox every day and reporting on the performance of the polls you run. Want us to build and automatically integrate polls across your site? Just let us know!
  5. We’ll be in touch by email once per week to see if you have any questions and find out how you’re doing. (Had a shitty Monday? You can tell us about that, too!)
  6. After 4 weeks, we’ll ask you if you’d like to make it official and take advantage of the audience development and revenue opportunities Opinary delivers through our polls. (Free access to the tool editor will not be taken away if you’re not ready for that next step!)

Questions? Get In touch!

Opinary co-founder Pia Frey and I are here for you! We’re happy to hop on a Google Hangout or visit your office to personally introduce you and your team to Opinary. Want to get started converting engagement into newsletter subscriptions or revenue right away? We’re here to bring you on board.

Reach me at simon@opinary.com and Pia at pia@opinary.com. (Don’t forget to congratulate Pia when you reach out! She’s been named to Forbes 30 under 30 for 2017!)