Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
4 mins read

“Toward a north star of sustainability”: Publisher doubles-down on audience engagement to grow subscription revenue

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In 2016, The Philadelphia Inquirer began its shift towards focusing on digital subscriptions. Earlier, the content on its website was free and the paper published for volume, prioritizing page views. As part of the transformation, The Inquirer shifted its focus towards building a deeper relationship with its audience, to turn them into paying subscribers who stayed.

At the heart of The Inquirer’s strategy was a new audience development team that included people from some of the best-known names in the business. The publisher got people who had worked on audience engagement for The New York Times, The Guardian, Bloomberg, CBS, and The Washington Post.

While this team is spearheading The Inquirer’s goal of deepening audience engagement, it does not work in isolation—ideas and strategies are shared across The Inquirer’s newsroom. Recently, the publisher shared its learnings with Better News. Presented below are key ideas that can be adapted by other publishers:

366% increase in interactions with a clear strategy

The audience development team began by streamlining its efforts on social media. The idea was to spend less time but get more out of social media channels. This required clear strategies built on what was working and what could get better returns.

For example, earlier the publisher had three separate, branded Facebook pages and a flagship Twitter account. It used to ignore social listening and user-generated content (UGC) and did not have any strategy for Instagram.

The Facebook pages were combined into one flagship page. The team was posting over 100 times a day on Facebook. This was reduced by 30%, yet the move led to a 30% increase in referral traffic.

Similarly, Twitter—which bought in 2% of total traffic—was automated without affecting traffic flow. The audience team used SocialFlow, an automation tool that works through an RSS feed. It scrapes headlines and metadata, including photos, and tweets them. Automating Twitter posting freed up a considerable amount of time for the team which was spending nearly 80% of its time posting on Twitter.

The freed up time was then used on other meaningful activities. For example, the audience team began actively showcasing The Inquirer’s visual journalism on Instagram. It also started using UGC that it got through the hashtag #OurPhilly.

Now, the publisher uses UGC on social media and even on selective editorial pieces and newsletters. Since the end of 2017, when the audience team started working with Instagram in a planned manner, there has been an 87% increase in following. Total interactions have also increased, year-over-year, by 366%.

Creating new revenue streams with newsletters

Earlier, The Inquirer’s newsletters were automated. Readers would simply receive a set of automated links in their emails. The audience team revamped the newsletter strategy to create a portfolio of curated newsletters written by its staff. They are overseen by a newsletter editor focused on growth, presentation, analytics, and digital subscriptions.

We developed a product mindset and engaged partners across the company in the development of newsletters that are sponsorable, creating a new revenue stream for the organization.

Kim Fox, Managing Editor, Audience and Innovation & Ross Maghielse, Manager of Audience Development at The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Inquirer has eight newsletters at present including a flagship morning newsletter and others focused on sports, politics, food and things to do. The publisher has more on the way.  

“Miles ahead” with SEO

Fox and Maghielse told Better News, “Our newsroom is miles ahead of where it was with SEO, and we’ve been able to capitalize on major news events by successfully bringing in large search audiences.”

Where earlier, The Inquirer’s “backend site structure was a mess from an SEO perspective,” the publisher is now aggressively fixing and improving it with the help of an SEO consultant. Earlier, headlines were published without full names or relevant keywords. Now they are more consistent and informed by data from search terms and trends.

The publisher has a clear workflow for getting SEO suggestions to writers and editors. During major events, the SEO Editor creates a list of keywords, headlines and URL structures for reporters and editors. There is a slack channel as well, to distribute SEO suggestions in real time for breaking news.

The Inquirer is also increasingly using analytics to measure the performance of its journalism. It has created detailed and easy-to-use dashboards that display data for each desk, team, and author.  

Fox and Maghielse say, “We are data-informed, not data-led. In order to carry that out in a meaningful way, you need to know your stuff and be able to translate or contextualize that information for journalists who are often more comfortable with words than numbers.

“You need to be comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” and working with experts in your company who can help wade through mountains of data to find the meaningful (actionable) pieces.”

They recommend creating a team culture that values experimentation but is also highly disciplined. “It’s great to experiment and get industry attention, but it’s even more important to systematically focus your work on activities that generate revenue and ensure that your company is working toward a north star of sustainability,” the duo concluded.

Download WNIP’s comprehensive new report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.

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