Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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How publishers are growing subscribers by serving specific audience segments: Lessons from WAN-IFRA

WAN-IFRA has published a new report sharing insights from newsrooms working on creating robust digital businesses. The report, “Understanding your audiences in a deeper way,” is based on learnings from the second round of Table Stakes Europe (TSE), a WAN-IFRA programme in partnership with the Google News Initiative Digital Growth Programme. It shares practical tips and strategies used by participating publishers to understand their readers better and use those insights to build products that fuel business growth. 

As newsrooms strive to strengthen their digital businesses, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the most successful ones start with a focus on the audiences’ needs, and how the newsroom can best serve them through high-quality (digital-first) journalism.

Understanding your audiences in a deeper way, WAN-IFRA

“Battle for the scarce time and attention”

“All news enterprises – especially local ones – battle for the scarce time and attention of the people they hope to serve,” the authors write. “Success comes only when the news and information provided makes a difference to people’s lives where they live.” Publishers can’t do that by serving “general content for the general public.” 

The report suggests beginning with identifying the audiences they want to serve. “It starts with editorial instinct,” the authors note. “Can we understand what these specific readers are going through? Can we reflect on their experiences? Can we contribute to solving their problems?” 

It lays down the criteria used by TSE participants to select their target audience. These include understanding:

  • Whether the target audience is attractive enough in terms of journalistic and financial sustainability
  • The level of readiness with respect to serving them 
  • Whether the existing team is passionate about the chosen audience group
Source: Understanding your audiences in a deeper way, WAN-IFRA

“Segment them and listen to their needs”

The report shares how the German Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger (KStA), which has a daily print newspaper and online presence, doubled its digital subscribers in a year by focusing on audiences. The publisher used the above criteria to zero in on three specific audiences: teachers, home seekers, foodies. 

“We adopted the mini-publishing concept,” says Sophie Rohringer, Audience & Analytics Manager, DuMont which owns KStA. “We built editorial teams for specific audiences. We addressed them with different products.” 

We started to look at our readers not only as one big group of anonymous readers, but to really segment them and listen to their needs, their interests and to provide them with the content they need in their daily lives.

Sophie Rohringer, Audience & Analytics Manager, DuMont

The publisher analyzed data to identify which topics to cover and for measuring performance. This helped identify topics that:

  • were covered often but didn’t generate enough traffic
  • were more likely to trigger conversations and those that helped in retention
  • they could stop pursuing or change their coverage approach

KStA now has weekly feedback sessions with the editorial team where they are briefed on data trends, their implications, and whether they need to make changes. The publisher is focusing on long-term offers and its paid product. It has created new online marketing channels, as well as different offers.

“Think user-focused”

Schwäbische Zeitung (SZ), another German publication, found that there was considerable interest in housing-related issues among its readers. Since this audience segment had a lot of potential the publisher created a new sub-domain focusing on housing-related news. “SZ  was already producing relevant content,” according to the report, “and the subdomain was an easy way to package it all in one place and spotlight it further.” 

While traffic to the sub-domain has not yet reached the level they had hoped for, the data indicates potential. “The data shows that the people who use [the subdomain] are more engaged and are really valuable users,” says Steffi Dobmeier, Deputy Editor-in-chief and Head of Digital Content and Strategy, Schwäbische Zeitung. “People are using the content, but they don’t necessarily find it via the subdomain. So I think it was the right audience, but we could still build on the product.”

The publisher is now looking at launching region-specific newsletters focused on housing and living. “We included our users in the process and asked them about their feedback and preference,” adds Dobmeier.

Jennifer Schuler, SZ’s Digital Transformation Manager stresses the importance of having a dialogue with readers in order to understand their needs. A lot of publishers “don’t think user-focused,” she says. “They make decisions based on what they think users are interested in, instead of asking them. And not only once, but continuously during the process.”

There are a lot of best practices and learnings from others on how to have a dialogue with customers. Publishers should use those. 

Jennifer Schuler, Digital Transformation Manager, Schwäbische Zeitung

“Try things out more easily”

As they continue to test new tactics to serve their targeted audience, Dobmeier underlines the importance of getting things moving quickly and on a small scale. 

“If you want to change things and do digitalization,” she says, “then you need to realize that not every step will be exactly in the right direction. [The news industry] is not traditionally very good at this, but I think we need to change our culture so that we can try things out more easily. And if it doesn’t work, then it should be OK to stop it or make changes.” 

The “Test and Learn” idea makes major leaps seem less dramatic.

François Vidal, Deputy Editor-in-chief, Les Echos

The full report can be downloaded from Table Stakes Europe:
Understanding your audiences in a deeper way