Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
6 mins read

“Quality drives readers”: a talk with Markus Hofmann, Head of Digital Content at Badische Zeitung

hands using smartphone

We all know the saying – what gets measured, gets managed. However, it’s the way you measure content performance that’s of crucial importance. The quality of results depends directly on the type of metrics you use and value, as well as the actual editorial strategy you build your content analysis upon.

The media industry is steadily moving in the right direction – away from clickbait and cheap-thrill content that diminish quality journalism. Reader revenue models look promising in terms of sustainability.

In such a climate, online media organizations and newsrooms are starting to realize that single metrics such as Pageviews, Time on Page, and Returning Visitors, are not sufficient for measuring engagement, let alone reader loyalty.

A shift from single metrics to complex, behavioral metrics is happening and early adopters who embraced the change are already noticing a positive difference.   

Badische Zeitung is one of the newsrooms that has recognized the value of behavioral metrics and created a data-driven culture that supports their reader revenue business model.

In September 2018, this German regional newspaper partnered up with Content Insights in order to better understand the habits, interests and expectations of their readers, and ultimately serve them the content they will value and love. 

We sat down with Markus Hofmann, Head of Digital Content at Badische Zeitung to catch up. We talked about the metrics they use to fine-tune their subscription strategy, how they measure loyalty and engagement, select their newsletter content, and maintain a data-informed organization, and more. 

So, Markus, last year, Badische Zeitung reached 20,000 subscribers. How’s that number looking now, and what do you feel has been crucial to your success so far? 

Well, currently, we are approaching the mark of 25,000 subscribers. That’s an important intermediate goal for our company and means that we’re well on our way to establish a sustainable digital business model. We notice that our growth rate is increasing, especially with the subscription product targeting our web audience. As to success factors, I think an intensive interaction between strong journalism (newsroom) and  advanced digital marketing (business team) is crucial.  

This autumn, Badische Zeitung is releasing a new news app and I hear you introduced some changes based on one reader’s feedback.  How often do you explicitly ask for readers’ feedback, in general? 

We do this from time to time. Especially for a local news publisher like Badische Zeitung, this is a really good way to stay in touch with our readers and to show them we care what they think. I remember a relaunch of our website some years ago when we established a digital garage where our readers could examine and test the new product before the launch. This time, we invited a dozen of readers to our newsroom to show them exclusively our new native news app several weeks before the launch.  We got some really useful hints during this workshop.

With the help of Content Insights, you have managed to shift away from simple metrics (e.g. Pageviews), towards complex metrics that can actually provide information about your content performance and readers’ behavior. Which of the available metrics bring the most value to your media organization?

Engagement and loyalty metrics are really, really important for our analysis.

Engagement – because we focus on the most important thing readers can give us: their time. Loyalty – because we now finally focus on the most important segment of our audience: people who are paying for our content or people who are most likely to pay for our content. So, we pay close attention to Engagement CPI and Loyalty CPI as two key metrics for analyzing our journalism.

engagement-loyalty

In June this year, Badische Zeitung broke its online reach record. Congratulations! Can you tell us more about what happened and how you reached this milestone?

Astonishingly, we broke this record even though less and less of our content is available for free in front of our paywall. Here’s what we observed:

Once readers become paying subscribers, many of them get much more engaged and consume much more of our content than before.

This certainly has a positive impact on our reach. 

Two more things: 1) we modernized our digital products over the past two years and 2) we really believe in good local journalism. We don’t make any compromises concerning low-end-content or click-baiting. Quality drives readers.

How do you ensure a good flow of data at Badische ZeitungWhat are some of the ways Content Insights helps you with building data literacy? Was there any resistance towards the data from your journalists? 

We started using data tools like Content Insights and Cxense about one year ago. Though we learned a lot, it’s still early days in my perception. Content Insights really helped us to become more data-minded. Of course, you have to answer critical questions in the newsroom and you have to explain a lot.

Here’s what’s most important for me though: working with data on a regular basis doesn’t mean that this data replaces human brains in order to automate journalism. Data is simply a powerful tool that helps humans to make better decisions. 

So, as the Head of Digital Content at Badische Zeitung how do you use Content Insights? How does it fit into your workflow?

I always focus on the following question: which of our content is premium and will help us to grow our subscriber base?

Content Insights is really helpful here. There’s an email report I get every morning. This report answers the most important questions I have in mind concerning the day before. Some of these questions are:

  • Which content made our most loyal readers (= our subscribers) happy?
  • Which articles and topics tied up our readers and produced the most engagement?
  • Which of our premium content didn’t fulfill our expectations? 

Can you share an example or two about how Content Insights helps you make the right editorial decisions? 

Let’s take opinion pieces for example. Opinion (the German words for this section are “Kommentare”, “Meinung” or “Leitartikel”) isn’t the blockbuster-type-of-content concerned with reach. Content Insights helped us to understand that opinion plays a really important role for our most loyal readers. Opinion is an important source of engagement. So we tell our editors that opinion helps us to make our subscribers more loyal and that guides their focus.

That’s great! And can you tell us more about your newsletter content?

Sure. We will launch a pilot of this product as MVP in November 2019, the big roll-out of the product will take place in the beginning of 2020.

Our newsletter strategy is built on data, local content, and automation. Simply put, we will take all the data we have to curate the best stories published in the last 24 hours. In the evening, our newsletter-subscribers will then get a local low-down custom-made to their local needs.  We see our newsletter as very important driver for loyalty, which is the most important requirement for subscriptions.

The domain rating of Badische Zeitung is pretty high and so is your organic traffic. Do you invest in strategic SEO? How important is measuring content performance in this context?

Actually, we don’t pay that much attention to strategic SEO. I think our developer team does a really good job from the technical side so we have a reasonable base. Personally, I think in the near future SEO will be an important source not only for new traffic, but for new subscribers too. This certainly will be a (strategic) topic we cover in 2020. 

What would you say are the biggest mistakes publishers who are trying to introduce a reader revenue model make? Do you have any advice for them?

A really important thing is to define your editorial focus. Focus on one thing and try to be better than anybody else. Sitting between two stools never was a winning strategy on the Internet. And another thing: don’t underestimate the importance of marketing. It’s not enough to have great content and link into your shop discreetly at the end of any article. It must be more like a firework, I think.

And when it comes to sustainability of online media and journalism, what are your predictions for the near future? Which business models are likely to take center stage?

For local publishers, there’s only one sustainable business model: subscriptions and paid content. All publishers really should go all-in on that. That doesn’t mean that reach (and hence advertising) isn’t important anymore. In my opinion, the first requirement for a sustainable paid content-model is reach. If your audience is too small, your subscriptions won’t scale.

A valuable advice indeed! Anything else you would like to add?   

I’m an optimist. Though times are quite hard, I see a bright future for a digital journalism which is funded by its readers. But it’s a long way to go. Here we go!

by Mia Čomić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.

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