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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Inside the mobile-first, digital always strategy at The Dallas Morning News

October 28, 2016 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst – Mobile Groove @peggyanne

Most content companies have come to terms with the hard truth that vast majority of their audience is using a mix of mobile apps and devices to access and enjoy news and multimedia. But there are still a whole lot of companies are just beginning to grasp what the shift to “mobile-first” means for their digital strategy. At one level, it’s about adapting information for smaller screens. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s about striking a balance between a presentation for occasional readers who like to dip in and out of stories and loyal brand fans who desire long-form content and coverage.

Here, Peggy Anne Salz, analyst at MobileGroove, catches up with Chris Williams, Digital Strategist & Senior Director of Digital Portfolio at The Dallas Morning News. They discuss the organization-wide rethink that has allowed the company to revamp its mobile apps, reimagine its brand and recharge advertising by harnessing mobile audience context.

The Dallas Morning News is clearly in a period of transition, going from being a newspaper company with a website to being a mobile-first digital media company. Please recount some of the recent changes.

It’s a complete overhaul from newsroom and technology outward to be mobile-first and digital-always. With our new look and approach we have a new mantra: Time is the new inches. It used to be we measured attention and loyalty in inches. It was all about how many inches in a newspaper we were trying to get people to stare at. Now we are getting away from that without alienating our print audience: It’s about driving a balance with a blended product offering, without driving away our core audience of newspaper readers. We want to offer up the right things to people at the right time. We launched a new DallasNews.com this year, plus GuideLive.com and SportsDayDFW.com in recent history.

We see a lot of our audience comes in through social media, and we see that the vast majority of our mobile audience comes in at different times of day. For that reason, much of the mobile-first design is focused on people coming in the ‘side door” instead of getting to the news from the homepage. We’ve had to ask and answer some tough questions to get this right: How do we navigate people that come in from referring sources such as social media? How do we navigate them from article to article, or keep them in a stream of headlines that they’re interested in at that exact moment? The new DallasNews.com website is responsive for all devices and times of day—and with it we have been building our content management system to match modern needs.

We did a cleanup of our apps, including one we offer in partnership with a popular local sports radio station that includes streaming audio as well as our own sports content and a DVR-like functionality. It was getting a little long in the tooth when it came to supporting new rich media assets, so we’re re-launching the iOS version of that app in the coming weeks, and following that with a launch of the Android version later in the year. Our primary brand app, “The Dallas Morning News” app, is also on a cycle of continuous improvement, so we update it regularly.

You have reduced your portfolio of apps. But at the same time you have grown your portfolio of brands to a national level and increased your curation of content. Normally, companies worry about diluting their brand, but you seem to embrace it…

sportsdaytalkSome big name brands in news insist on having a branded house, where all the content is essentially branded the same in shape or form. We decided we didn’t want to be a branded house because we’re not about the singular name; we’re about building products that resonate with the modern—and mobile—users that make up the majority of the audience out there.

Instead, we go with an approach that allows us to be a house of brands, some that are linked to Dallas where our audience is highly engaged and loyal to our news. But being digital forces us to think beyond our arrival on someone’s doorstep. We have to think about how we reach people on their devices, wherever they are. Being a house of brands allows us to be flexible and roll out coverage that can relevant to people everywhere.

Let’s say I launch the best horse racing coverage in the entire nation as an example. If I brand it “The Dallas Morning News,” then there’s the potential that I’m fighting an uphill brand battle with readers in North Dakota who love horse racing thinking, “Well, what does Dallas really know about what I’m looking for?” People think of content by topics, and not necessarily the source until the source is something they don’t identify with. That’s why our brands, like GuideLive or SportsDay, are powered by The Dallas Morning News, but they stand on their own as brands and products.

Tell me about your spin-off brands and the content focus.

GuideLive is a destination for a general entertainment and events audience and is one that’s focused on very specific things not tied only to “Dallas” or “Morning News.” When we rolled that out, it was launched as a digital pure play. We took the approach of a startup, separating people from most enterprise ties; with a small cross functional team we did an entirely new audience and product build and it’s been a steady growth plan ever since.

SportsDay is another where we wanted to build a wider audience (not start from scratch), realizing that the core audience of Cowboy and Mavericks fans, two of our sports teams here, have national appeal with that audience coming from outside Dallas. Although it is a separate brand and product with its own feature set, it’s firmly in the foundation on which we have built our house of brands.

In a way it’s reminiscent of TV or music where channels are organized in channels and address target audiences, or satisfy Long Tail tastes…

Exactly. That’s precisely the approach we take because we believe that content, in order to survive and thrive, has to be agnostic. It can’t be limited to formats, like print, or only appeal to a specific audience defined by geography. We want to reach every audience out there, and we start with what you could call it a top-down and bottoms-up approach. The top-down part is the more traditional study of the market that answers the key question: “Is there a market gap, or a growing trend out there, that we can capitalize on whether by growing audience or growing revenues?”

At the same time, we do a bottom-up approach, where we focus on pulling together the consumer insight to understand and address the opportunity. That’s when we might also do our own focus groups or build rapid prototypes to get a sense of how people feel, what their interests are, and help us decide if we want to go in with a new brand or content to serve that audience. No matter what we decide, it’s goal driven and data-driven.

Let’s discuss the user journey through your apps and destinations. How do you make the match between the audience you want to engage and the content you want them to engage with?

We start by looking at the audience and map the journey to what we know about the audience segment and what our data about the users tells us. In the case of DallasNews.com, we went from a very click-heavy site to an infinite scroll site, one where readers can click to read an article and then quickly drop back into a stream of our content options, or stubs as we call them, and be presented with new opportunities to click and read new articles. This is a huge departure from the old thinking that was all about stuffing related links into a single article and sending people down a rabbit hole to find out more.

Apps have a different use case. People aren’t coming in from social or Google. They are accessing your content because they are “content loyal.” What we’re finding is that we are serving two audience personas in our apps. One is the “Leisure Browser,” people who just skim everything, and do lots of scroll activity as they move in and out of the content. The other is “The Researcher,” people who are engrossed in the content and will spend minutes reading long-form articles. Our new design caters to both.

Digiday reports that your latest app revamp also appeals to Millennials. Of your 40,000 monthly users, 60% are Millennials…

DMNFavsThis is an audience that typically returns to the app multiple times throughout the day to check for the latest developments. They also want choices—which is why we show 10 to 20 list of top articles. This list is curated, so it’s straight out of our newsroom, not a list of trending topics Millennials can get elsewhere. They appreciate news that is thoughtfully curated because it’s one less thing they have to filter. Sometimes too much choice is also stress.

Other Millennials want control of the content and there the My Feed section of the app allows them a ton of customization. Instead of seeing what is important in the area, for example. readers can dip into the app and check out all the headlines that they care about based on topics. My Feed is a success, but we also notice that users have a large hump to climb over when it comes to self-customization. Not everyone wants to make the decisions and spend time setting their preferences. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t—so one of our next big tasks will be to use the data around what people are reading to make suggestions. We want to be able to say “Hey, we’ve preselected these items and boosted their importance in My Feed for you to check out because you’re sure to appreciate them.” That way we’re helping to populate the feed automatically, instead of making people go in and twist a bunch of knobs themselves.

Data helps you deliver content, but a data-driven approach can also help advertisers target relevant audiences with relevant messages. At a time when we read that 75 cents of every ad dollar spent is spent on Google or Facebook, how do you compete?

As an industry, we’re going from printed dollars to digital dimes to mobile pennies. Advertising dollars were very much driven by having a captive audience. And then, as digital and mobile have grown, so, too, has the pricing and sizing of advertising changed. Our approach is to be unafraid of organic opportunities that apply to our business and be bold in identifying new revenue streams.

One example is affiliate revenue. For example, if we do a product review, then it may make sense to do an adjacent product click that goes over to a provider like Amazon or eBay to let consumers make a purchase there and we potentially get a commission. Or consumer might be reading a story about a new release GuideLive and want to go see the movie. We’ve been talking to car hire services like Uber and Lyft, and ticket sales vendors and aggregators to find out how we can work together to make an engaging experience: people read a movie review, buy tickets online, and then jump in a car to head there and we can empower them, supporting other businesses, and making some additional revenue ourselves.

The aim is to come up with a blend that is good for business and good for consumers. It used to be advertising was all about how do you tie content to ads. Now we are a point where we are using data to define audiences and influence decisions when they are engaging with content. We see great performance from retargeting campaigns and audience-based campaigns. But we see even better performance when we manage to match the content and the person’s intent at the same time in the same place. In the end, our goals are excellent digital-first and people-focused products; ones that blend all the user and business needs, like amazing content, fun advertising experiences, and modern organic revenue growth.

Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.

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