Media publishers have faced many challenges in the past. Today in the digital era, content volume alone can be hard to contend with. Unlike most printed content, digital products are expected to serve holistic, timely, and customized experiences that often include written, visual, audio, and interactive material in a singular piece of content. There are then millions of these pieces of content from global brands, all competing for attention.
Objectively great products just aren’t enough to attract or keep digital customers, says senior contributor at Forbes and relevance marketing expert John Hall. Today, it also takes personalized emotional resonance: “To gain and retain a customer’s attention in an increasingly competitive and unpredictable marketplace, you need to build deep and lasting connections…you must make them feel truly seen and understood.”
Creating content that engages customers in personalized ways is now key to revenue growth and sustainability. Publishers can break through market saturation and ensure this engagement by crafting resonant experiences.
One of the 20th century’s most visionary media theorists and advertising artists developed an idea that’s now critical for digital publishers. Ahead of his time, Tony Schwartz’s ‘resonance theory’ is key to creating content journeys that connect deeply and move users to action.
Companies that prioritize these resonant content experiences see returns: nearly 65% of marketers say that delivering relevant, relatable content is the most effective strategy for driving overall content consumption, according to HubSpot and Influencer Marketing Hub. On publishers’ sites specifically, active users spent over 30 minutes longer per session than inactive users, according to OpenWeb’s 2020 audience engagement report.
It follows then that resonant content journeys start by understanding that no user or reader is a blank slate: each person comes to every piece of media content with their own unique background and expectations. This shapes their customer value perception and experiences of content and messaging, says Schwartz:
“A resonance approach does not begin by asking ‘What do I want to say?’…[Rather, the communicator] must deeply understand the kinds of information and experiences [already] stored in his audience, the patterning of this information, and interactive resonance process whereby stimuli [sound, layout, imagery, etc.] evoke this stored information…A ‘message’ is not the starting point for communicating. It is the final product arrived at after considering the effect we hope to achieve and the communication environment where people will experience our stimuli.”
For digital media and journalism brands, resonance means building content experiences with the audience, not only for the audience.
The brand loyalty built from content that resonates in this way is powerful for subscription businesses that are reliant on years-long subscriber relationships to see real profit returns. Projecting this, Gannett’s CEO Mike Reed told Digiday that despite seeing a lower number of digital-only subscribers in 2023, a focus on “increasing average revenue per user” had strengthened overall profits. Resonant experiences nurture the authentic connection needed to optimize revenue across the user lifetime.
So with the importance of resonance clearly demonstrated in the figures, let’s explore how to actually craft experiences that are tailored to audiences…
Creating resonant, custom experiences is all about connectivity. The media and journalism industry is first and foremost a community conversation – the public square. Making this principle the focus of content journeys means finding direct ways audiences and creators (like journalists) can connect.
The goal isn’t to monetize every point of authentic connection. Instead, when publishers cultivate responsive content environments, they can learn what people are willing to pay for, make those offers successfully at the right moments, and earn repeat customer satisfaction. This builds trust and accessibility, translating into other monetizable opportunities.
Substack is one example of a responsive digital environment that provides more direct-to-consumer value through reader access to favorite, individual journalists. It’s controversial within the industry, but Substack’s horizontal model gained momentum for important reasons. Social media similarly allows for real-time, experimental, and responsive engagement, such as the New York Times live audio conversations on Twitter Spaces.
Digital publishers can also learn relationship building and customer feedback strategies from the gaming industry. For example, Discord servers originated in online gaming environments but are now powerful interest-driven contexts for users to chat with top journalists, publisher thought leaders, and like-minded online communities; all this offers direct user insight that publishers can use to personalize experiences and gather data on site. Podcasts have also been leveraged to build engaged listener communities, and live-stream experiences or live events equipped with interactive AI capabilities help attendees personalize their more direct interactions with publisher brands.
Across all kinds of platforms and models, consistency and responsiveness are the real keys: genuine, ongoing access to the conversation resonates with users and can teach publishers how to effectively engage them for the long run.
It’s imperative to meet user needs and expectations where they’re at, but going too far can result in fake interactions and unethical journalism. Readers, especially tech-savvy young digital natives, can easily see through this, and they might lose interest. Publishers who are upfront about how they research and deliver content create more meaningful experiences.
For example, when publishers are willing to teach people about the journalistic process, they nurture needed public trust and often craft more engaging, high quality content. Some journalists are using social media to maintain transparency by showing behind-the-scenes throughout the research process and to humanize themselves for sources and audiences. This model is supported by 93% of American users, according to the Gallup/Knight Foundation. The BBC, New York Times, The Washington Post, Storyful, and other publishers have all used open-source journalism that depends on publicly available sources to ‘show their work’; this kind of transparency strengthens engagement.
Like content transparency, transparency about data use is also critical. Digitization is new in the long history of publishing, so many people still don’t understand why companies want their data or how they use it. Yet users still want experiences where their digital personas are treated with the same respect they would expect from a brand offline. Openly explaining to users how their data powers personalized digital products can build loyalty. The whole digital experience resonants best with users when brands earn trust through transparency.
Finally, resonant content creation is about making personalized digital experiences smooth and agile. Historically, publishers had to rely significantly on intuition for audience research, but now, publishers can use registration forms, progressive profiling, and data analytics to ask the same deep questions of the user-content relationship that journalists ask of sources: who, what, when, where, why, and how? This kind of precise research lends itself to seamless experiences, sharper storytelling, and long-term subscriber satisfaction.
Digital analytics help publishers segment audiences appropriately and adapt content and delivery for a dynamic user experience throughout the customer lifetime. Content analysis also guides publishers seeking to refine their storytelling, such as adapting the tone of headlines to resonate better with certain audiences over time. By gradually and directly gathering an individual’s data in natural, non-intrusive ways, publishers can build a more authentic relationship and use the data to make future interactions feel more seamless. This is called progressive profiling, and it’s become critical for revenue generation.
Resonant digital content fosters lasting connection and trust by treating the user experience as a conversation first; this means providing direct, personalized access points to listen to readers and collaboratively build product experiences. These subscriber-led strategies require a transparent approach and seamless digital interactions developed from smart data analytics and progressive profiling. Publishers craft resonant content with – not only for – their audiences, and this converts casual consumer interest into ongoing, profitable engagement throughout the customer lifetime.