Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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How publishers can become more audience-focused: Key learnings from WAN-IFRA and Google News Initiative

“A full commitment to growing subscription revenues means realigning editorial, marketing and technical operations with a new focus on trust, loyalty, data, and understanding core audiences,” says Vincent Peyrègne, CEO, WAN-IFRA.

The organization has published a report, Becoming Audiences First; it shares key learnings from the 12-months long Table Stakes Europe (TSE) program organized in collaboration with Google News Initiative Digital Growth Program. 

TSE was designed by leading management thinker and adviser Doug Smith and involved 14 European pub­lishers. The objective was to help establish and grow the online business of news publishers who have started developing their digital platforms recently. 

TSE Participants Source: Becoming Audiences First

The program was designed to achieve the following goals: 

  • Accelerate the transition of journalism from print to digital  
  • Help newsrooms change their practices 
  • Reach new audiences and 
  • Better engage their communities

TSE uses a challenge-centric, performance-and-accountability change methodology to identify and then close shortfalls against seven core performance challenges, the “Table Stakes.”

Source: Becoming Audiences First

Here’s how some of the participating publishers went about achieving their goals:

The journey starts with a thorough gap analysis. It is to understand where the publisher stands vis-a-vis the requirements that make an excellent audience first newsroom.

169% increase in newly registered users 

Spanish publisher ARA identified gaps in the way it served its audiences with targeted content. They found that they had a “production gap.” Only 26% of the news they published really reached an audience (80% of the audience in fact). 

Additionally, their newsroom workflow was too print-focused. The editorial organization did not allow them to deliver content digitally and according to the requirements of their readers. They also found a gap in their subscription process. Readers could avoid the metered paywall in many ways. They were not using the valuable audience-data they had to improve payment possibilities.

ARA’s primary strategy has been to focus more on the content they create. They started to use more data and analyse the behaviour of their audiences. A dashboard displaying data on readers’ habits was set up. Next a registration wall was also put in place to get more accurate data on non-subscribers. 

Now we want to bring data to our newsrooms to produce more for our target audiences. We need to produce less, and the content we produce, we want to make it more attractive to our audiences.

Georgina Ferri, Chief Innovation and Revenue Officer at ARA

An in-depth analysis of their top 10 editorial sections in terms of users, visits and page views revealed the potential of their “Opinion” section to build loyalty. It was then decided to make these articles accessible only to registered readers. 

This increased the number of newly registered users by 169% and the number of sessions logged in by registered users by 20%. Gradually the publisher reduced the number of articles it produced. It focused on increasing the amount of content read by at least 80% of users from 26% to 40%. 

They changed the timing of publication and began publishing a mix of short news items and longer articles throughout the day on digital channels. The team also worked on indicators and dashboards to help each journalist understand the interests of the audiences they had defined. 

Predict new acquisitions with 85% reliability

ARA has also developed its own RFV metric (Recency/Frequency/Volume) inspired by the Financial Times. It allows them to predict new acquisitions with 85% reliability and churn with 65% reliability. 

The publisher decided to keep its paywall up during the pandemic because it believed in the value of its content. This helped it gain over 2,000 new subscribers.

“We want to increase our subscriber base, and we want to reduce our churn. It’s not that high, but we want to reduce it further,” says Ferri. ARA is focusing on converting as many unique users as possible into registered readers and paid subscribers. It aims to reach 19M users by 2022. 

Adopt a “mini-publisher perspective”

“Among the vulnerabilities of legacy newspapers when the wave of digital disintermediation began in the early 2000s was this,” states the report. “Just at a time when they most needed as many general managers who could see and respond to the ‘whole business,’ they really only had one: the publisher.

“Moreover, that publisher sat atop siloed functions that basically only knew how to coordinate for one purpose: putting out the paper each day. TSE teams have adopted the mini-publisher perspective to overcome these severe constraints.”

Scottish publisher DC Thomson’s use of Table Stakes’ mini-publishers concept offers valuable lessons for others. “A mini-publisher team is filled with journalistic experts in a specific chosen field and their job is to super-serve their audience with brilliant content,” explains Richard Prest, Project Lead for Content Development at DC Thomson Media. 

“It’s as simple as that. And importantly as well, to serve that content how the audience wants it, primarily by mobile (Editor’s note: in their case) and also when they want it.”

DCT produces multiple titles and decided to start with their newspaper, The Courier in Dundee. They aimed to have 5,000 newsletter subscribers by the end of their TSE program and 1,200 paid digital-only subscribers (the entire group had 1,000 digital subscribers when they started).

They began by analyzing their audience data to understand who was reading what, when and for how long. The objective was to increase what was working well, to identify weak points, and stop doing things that didn’t work.

“Right in the centre of the whole business”

The publisher then formed mini-publisher teams to focus on the content they wanted to develop.  They launched five mini-publisher audience teams. “Those teams that we have set up so far include Impact, which is an investigations team, and we have a political team, Food & Drink, Schools, and also Nostalgia, which looks at local history and events and anniversaries,” says Prest. 

Each team has access to data which shows how they are performing. 

The Courier gained 15,022 newsletter subscribers by the end of the program. It has 2,300 digital paid subscribers and the group has close to 8,000 digital subscribers. Their sister paper The Press and Journal has also adopted a mini-publisher organization. They now have more than 26,000 subscribers to their newsletters. 

Source: Becoming Audiences First

The success of the mini-publisher concept has emboldened DCT’s leadership to announce their “north star” goal of attaining 75,000 digital subs across DCT’s five newspaper titles in five years.

“Absolutely fundamental to us is that the mini publisher teams are right in the centre of the whole business. That’s the driving force, the heartbeat behind what we are trying to do.”

Richard Prest, Project Lead for Content Development, DC Thomson Media

The full report is available at WAN-IFRA:
Becoming Audiences First