Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
7 mins read

Top 5 things that can deliver huge ROI for publishers

There’s a long list of things that newsrooms don’t do well; the good news is there are solutions available

Problem-solving roadmaps typically start with a “define the problem” stage. Others say first you need to decide if you are solving the right problem for your company (or newsroom).

We are still at the beginning of the year. Even though most managers have already drawn up plans for 2022, there is always room for improvement or substitution.

To get a sense of what news industry leaders will do in 2022, read Nic Newman’s Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2022 report, recently published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. (If you don’t have time for the full report, check out Journalism.co.uk’s summary or look at the climate change coverage deep dive by NiemanLab).

Tl;dr – audio products and newsletters are top of mind, so are subscriptions and figuring out social platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

But reading between the lines, the report also touches on several issues that remain problematic for many news media. There are also other problems you will not find in the report.

Here is a list of the top five things that could, in my opinion, deliver huge returns on investment.

1) Poor website experience (slow, clunky, too much content)

It wasn’t so long ago that headlines like “News Sites Top List of Slowest-Loading Web Pages”, from Adweek were fairly common. Things have gotten better, but they are still not great.

Publishers started to care more for page speeds and loading times around the same time as Google began to push the issue. More importantly, when they commissioned and published studies and data showing faster load times meant more ad money or e-commerce leads. Still, a random check of news websites show the fast loading future is not a reality for everyone.

Barry Adams, an independent SEO consultant, tweeted how various online sites compare in terms of Core Web Vitals scores. As he pointed out, e-commerce seems to do a better job than most content websites.

Core Web Vitals measure a user’s experience loading a webpage (how quickly page content loads, how quickly a browser loading a webpage can respond to user input, and how unstable the content is as it loads in the browser).

You can test the speed of your page here (another test with more insights). Google also has some good case studies and tips on optimizing your mobile page and app.

Two years ago, when The Washington Post began experimenting with its new homepage redesign, the main takeaway from user research was that people are really overwhelmed by the amount of information.

So the new design was less stuffed, had bigger pictures and bigger headlines. It was easy to read and scroll through.

Today, a newsroom has more options to choose a content management system (CMS) from than ever before. Sometimes a simple Substack blog is enough to begin building a local newsroom as newsletters from Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool showed last year. Especially the Manchester-based newsletter The Mill which gained 1,000 members in one year.

2) Building up your own platform for everything (text, video, audio)

According to the Reuters trends and predictions report, for the second year in a row CEOs and other media leaders see subscriptions and memberships as the most important revenue stream (not the biggest – the most important).

But having reader revenue as a priority doesn’t mean you get to work on it in a vacuum. Instead, manager’s need to constantly align reader revenue solutions with other areas.

Take the integration of audio, mainly podcasts and audio versions of articles. This has been a priority for some news publishers (Der SpiegelNYT) and it will continue to be important in 2022. For instance, NYT is even testing an audio-only mobile app for all of its audio content.

The problem is that bringing all content to your own app and integrating it all on your website is quite the technical challenge. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one of the best things any publisher can do, create its own super app so that readers don’t have to leave it for video or audio.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy solution here at the moment. Sure, there are companies offering white-label apps you can customize. But they usually lack good audio integration or aren’t well prepared for subscriptions or memberships.

Still, slowly building up your own platform with all of your content (articles, video shows, podcasts, newsletters…) is a good idea if you are running a direct revenue business and depend on your audiences and users.

3) Harnessing the power of archived content

Since I first came into news media working for a legacy newspaper in the middle of digital transformation (I worked in digital marketing before) I remember that each year we had at least one meeting where we talked about better using archive content.

The main problem here is that some of the gems in the archives were not written by especially SEO-minded journalists and most times it is hard to find. Or only senior journalists can remember what was even there.

Sure, the usual approach of looking through data on pageviews, time spent and past conversions will yield some results. Usually, though, it will be mostly articles that were relevant at the time.

Going deeper means looking for timeless interviews on a single subject that did not change over the years. Or interesting profiles on historical figures or investigations.

The problem is that at the moment it is rather hard to explain all of these factors to a search query, you need to develop an algorithm, use machine learning or perhaps artificial intelligence.

In the Reuters report, most newsroom leaders answered that AI in 2022 will be most important for them in terms of automated recommendations, commercial use (better propensity to pay models) and newsroom automation (tagging/transcription/assisted subbing).

Although all important use cases, I wonder whether resurfacing archive content that has already proved to be great isn’t a more efficient use. On the low effort end, you can just flag that its an older article. You can also go a step further and refresh the content, make it SEO-friendly and giving it another life.

If you sign up for the WIRED magazine newsletter one a week you will get a special edition called ‘WIRED Classics’. It is meant to showcase “the best WIRED stories from that month a year ago. It’s a clever way to make your editors dig through articles that could still worth sharing today.

Another example is the daily Co.Design newsletter by Fast Company which has a section called From the Archives at the bottom of the newsletter with one recommendation for an older story. Again, clever use of archival content.

4) Setting goals and communicating clearly your value proposition

I have written about the importance of communicating your value proposition before.

It is especially important now in 2022 as the streaming wars in most of Europe are going to hit their peak with the expansion of HBO Max, Disney+, Discovery+ (possibly CNN+) and many TV broadcasters are either strengthening their own streaming platforms or building new ones.

A clear and compelling value proposition will matter more than ever before for your future subscribers deciding whether they will pay for a third streaming service or that your content will bring them more value.

I believe setting goals for your news organisation goes hand in hand with your value proposition. Last year, we have seen several news outlets with strong subscription business to add more value to the subscription by adding extra content behind the paywall or bringing on board high-profile journalists.

2022 can be the year when you finally start a book business, or not. It can be a year when you promise your subscribers that if you hit a certain goal you will donate a thousand subscriptions to students and teachers. This can be a year when you hit your subscriber goal and finally start a new vertical on families, work or transportation with new authors you bring on board.

Once, I met a publisher that had a very confused managerial staff about the future. One manager told me they aim to hit 100-thousand digital subscribers within three years. The CEO said it is going to be around 75-thousand and another leader (from the same publishing house!) told me the goal is revenue, not the number of subscribers.

Clearly, this publisher did not communicate the goals clearly within. How can you expect to hit any goal at if the state of things is like this. Sadly, this is not an isolated occurrence.

5) Using the star power of your reporters

Almost each newsroom has its star reporters, an individual or a few people that are popular and their names are brands.

Every newsroom wishes to have such people, until they have them. Let me explain.

The benefit of a star reporter is their following. This is how Axios first approached the market by grabbing high-profile journalists that would bring their audiences with them. It worked, five years later there are startups like The Puck in the US that are doing just that, building a collective of journalists with specific beats and a following.

Star reporters are also great for doing a campaign for your news brand. Sure, that can be somewhat risky to build an ad for a certain reporter just to see him or her leave. 

Finally, something that is very underappreciated is how such journalists alone can bring directly more subscribers. I work at a newsroom as well and even though I am not a star reporter I produce a fairly popular tech podcast and from time to time listeners ask how they can support the work. With my co-host we always buy subscriptions but the listeners are not happy about that, they want to support us, our podcast.

Why is there not a specialized paywall saying that by buying (the same subscription) you will support the podcast and the authors? Of course, you would have to build dozens or hundreds of those, but that shouldn’t be a problem and suddenly you would have a very personalized offering for people who are already fans and waiting to be converted.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission.