Want to engage readers? Write about Brexit

By Paul Marsden

The name of the game when it comes to online news is attention. Attention equals advertising, which equals money.

That is why news organisations around the world are embroiled in a continual fist-fight for the eyeballs of readers. And (surprise, surprise) some of them play pretty dirty along the way, which is why the proliferation of fake news on social media has become a hot topic following the surprise election of Donald Trump as America’s new President.

Why bother writing the truth, when you can produce stories that are better than the truth, right!? Nearly 1m people on Facebook engaged with – shared, reacted or commented on – a bogus story about the Pope endorsing Trump, as fake news grabbed more attention than mainstream stories in the final weeks of that campaign.

This online engagement with a story – called transmission by academics – is crucially important for publishers. If  you want a story to travel further on social media you need to get audiences emotionally involved in it. Then they will share, comment or react to it, ensuring it ‘goes viral’ by appearing on the timelines of their contacts.

In Britain the vote to the leave the EU has split the country in two. The divides are numerous and complex – old versus young, degree educated versus high school educated, city dwellers versus townies – even though the reasons for voting to leave and stay stray far beyond the twin core issues of the economy and immigration.

But one thing is for sure, Brexit has engaged readers on both sides of the debate with politics like no other event for years.

The conservative Daily Mail, which vigorously backed Brexit, and the liberal Guardian, which was staunchly for remaining in Europe, have been two beneficiaries of this. The papers, which boast Britain’s biggest online audiences, are seeing ten of thousands of people engaging with their coverage on a regular basis as the Brexit story develops.

Take the last month for example, here are the engagment figures for the Daily Mail’s five biggest Brexit stories.

From the data you can see some interesting results emerging. Daily Mail readers responded to the prospect of price hikes in supermarkets and a court case dictating that parliment had to trigger Article 50, resulting in Brexit being “thrown into turmoil“, by jumping on their keyboard to have their say.

But when the paper took a swipe at the judges who delivered the verdict they preferred to share the story rather than comment on it, ensuring the paper’s voice went further.

The Guardian took the decision to disable comments on its EU court case stories, one was published a few weeks before the verdict and one in the immediate aftermath. This appears to have encouraged more of their audience to share their articles.

However their readers did get particularly exercised by one story – an article by their legal affairs expert which stated the government was considering arguing the triggering of Article 50 could be reversed by parliment in order to win the case.

The story provided much discussion amongst commenters about where this would leave the Brexit process. Their audience was also critical of Theresa May’s decision to back papers like the Daily Mail over the judicary in the wake of the court’s verdict.

Regardless of your thoughts on Brexit, it appears the process of leaving the EU will continue to drive traffic for big hitters like the Mail and Guardian for many years to come. If you run a niche website that provides specialist political or legal information you should be in for a bumper period too.

Main Image: George Hodan/Public Domain

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